ATLANTA – After a year of dealing with false claims and death threats, election officials on Tuesday delivered a relatively smooth Election Day.
There were just scattered reports of voting or equipment problems, typical for Election Day: a technical problem delaying a count of early ballots, a power outage, a polling place opening late. It was too soon to gauge the effects of new voting restrictions in place in a few states.
In Virginia, as a sign of how relatively low-key voting was in the state, one of the biggest issues was reminding poll workers that voters were not required to wear a mask when casting their ballot.
“Today was overwhelmingly a good day for Virginia,” said Virginia Department of Elections Commissioner Chris Piper. “Overall, the election today was about as smooth as we could have asked for.”
Piper said heavy turnout in the state prompted some polling locations to run out of ballots, but election officials were able to quickly pivot — either by printing more or directing voters to ballot-marking machines typically reserved for voters who need assistance. He said voting never stopped. In Fairfax County, the state's most populous, corrupted thumb drives used in four voting machines delayed the counting of ballots cast early, some of which were still being tallied hours after polls closed.
Once polls close across the country, election officials focused on counting ballots cast by every eligible voter and reporting the results, which are all unofficial until the election is certified. That will not happen for days or even weeks as election officials finish their counting and then conduct their post-election reviews to ensure the number of ballots cast equals the number of voters who voted. Any discrepancies are researched, and election officials provide detailed explanations prior to any election being certified.
In Georgia, Fulton County elections director Rick Barron said turnout had been “light but steady.” Two county polling locations did not have all the equipment they needed when polls opened, but poll managers allowed voters to use emergency paper ballots until the equipment issues were resolved, Barron said.
“Lines were short and Election Day was an easy experience for the vast majority of voters,” said Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts.
Election officials said demonstrating secure, consistent and fair practices would help reassure those who still have doubts about last year’s presidential election as preparations begin for next year’s midterms.
“It is a great dress rehearsal for 2022,” Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said.
Much of the attention was on Virginia and New Jersey, where voters were casting ballots for governor and other statewide offices. In the rest of the country, voters were making selections on a variety of local races, ranging from mayor and city council to school board and bond measures.
For some, the voting experience differed from last year, when officials implemented pandemic-related changes to make it easier for voters to avoid crowded polling places. Some states have made those changes permanent, while others have rolled some of them back.
In Virginia, lawmakers last year expanded absentee voting permanently by no longer requiring an excuse. But a requirement for a witness signature on absentee ballots that was waived last year is back, and officials were contacting voters who had been turning in ballots without them. Those voters have until Friday to fix the issue.
In a few states, voters encountered tighter voting rules because of laws enacted in states controlled politically by Republicans. Among them are Florida and Georgia, where voters faced new ID requirements for using mail ballots.
Georgia Republicans have been keeping a close eye on Fulton County, a heavily Democratic county that includes most of Atlanta, for any voting problems that could justify a state takeover using a sweeping new election law.
Barron said the panel appointed to review the county’s election operations as part of that process was on site Tuesday, but he said he didn’t want his staff to feel extra pressure because of that.
“I told the staff to focus on us and not to worry about all these external things that happen,” he said.
Republican lawmakers have said the changes were needed to improve security and public confidence after the 2020 presidential election. They acted as former President Donald Trump continued his false claims that the election was stolen despite no evidence of widespread fraud.
These claims were rejected by judges and election officials of both parties who certified the results and Trump's own attorney general, who said federal law enforcement had not seen fraud “on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
The claims have also decreased public trust and faith in election officials, who have been the target of threats and harassment. Last week, election officials of both parties testified before Congress about the threats they have received and called for more protections for election workers.
There were no reports of serious or widespread problems in the two states with the highest-profile races. In Virginia, after reports surfaced of voters complaining about being told to wear a mask, state election officials sent an email reminding local election officials that poll workers cannot refuse entry to voters who decline to wear a mask.
Various hotlines staffed by voting rights groups were available to assist voters who had questions or encountered problems. Damon Hewitt, whose group the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law leads the effort, said Tuesday's elections presented an important test.
“It’s a test of voters to run the gauntlet, to figure out these new rules and restrictions," Hewitt said. "And frankly, it’s also a test of our democracy: How strong can it be, and are we willing to tolerate these efforts to make it harder for people to vote?”
Izaguirre reported from Tallahassee, Florida. Associated Press writers Bryan Anderson in Raleigh, North Carolina, Kate Brumback in Atlanta and Ali Swenson in New York contributed to this report.