(Written by Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Jennifer Steinhauer and Nicole Perlroth)
Despite fears of widespread intimidation or disruptions at polling places, voting for a vast majority of Americans proceeded smoothly by midday on Tuesday with sporadic reports of robocalls, text messages, and some live calls meant to confuse and dissuade voters, or scattered incidents, but few major problems.
“It’s definitely a relief so far,” said Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security who focuses on domestic terrorism. But he warned “the period after the election is going to be more volatile and higher risk because you’re going to be dealing with the aftermath of the election results.”
By midday, most of the complaints around the country concerning intimidation centered on robocalls made to voters relaying false information. The Election Protection Hotline said it received reports of robocalls from 17 states discouraging voting.
The Michigan attorney general, Dana Nessel, said in a tweet that callers were directing voters to delay going to the polls to avoid long lines. “Obviously this is FALSE and an effort to suppress the vote. No long lines and today is the last day to vote,” Nessel said. “Don’t believe the lies! Have your voice heard!” (US Elections: Follow LIVE updates here)
The robocall complaint comes on top of live calls to voters in Michigan that threatened voters in Flint and Grand Rapids with arrests if they showed up to the polls, and a text message sent to voters in Dearborn that warned of “ballot sensor” malfunctions in the voting precincts. The message, which is being investigated by the state attorney general’s office, told voters that if they wanted their vote for their preferred presidential candidate to count, then they actually had to mark the ballot for the other candidate.
The FBI also confirmed the robocalls.
“As a reminder, the FBI encourages the American public to verify any election and voting information they may receive through their local election officials,” the agency said in a statement.
In Michigan, voters also started receiving disturbing, typo-filled text messages that claimed to come from the FBI.
The messages, which were sent to voters in Dearborn — which has the largest concentration of Muslims per capita in the U.S. — read, “Urgent alert: Due to a typographical error, scantron ballots being used for the 2020 election has swapped sensors. If you are intending on voting for Joe Biden you must bubble in Trump and vice verse. — Federal Berue of Investigation.”
A spokeswoman for the Michigan attorney general’s office said officials were still trying to track down the sender. They sent out an urgent alert on Facebook and Twitter on Tuesday to make sure voters in Dearborn did not fall for the scam.
In addition to the robocalls, there have also been live calls reported by voters in Flint and Grand Rapids that threatened voters to stay home or be arrested. “None of those are true,” the spokeswoman, Kelly Rossman-McKinney, said. She said there were reports of similar calls in Iowa.
In Virginia, Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said robocalls went out warning voters that they might get sick if they went out to vote. “Stay home and stay safe,” the calls said. The robocalls were similar to those reported in Michigan, Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, New York, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania on Tuesday.
The “stay home and stay safe” robocalls had started during the campaign and were continuing during voting, Clarke said. Voting rights groups said voters in several other states had gotten similar calls directing them to vote on Wednesday, Clarke said.
A senior homeland security official said such robocalls are common during elections.
Homeland Security intelligence warned last month that extremists could look to target “physical election infrastructure” like polling sites.
Federal officials and local police on Tuesday continued to prepare for possible unrest going into election night, with the Homeland Security Department deploying tactical agents from Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement throughout the United States to protect federal property. A new fence has been erected in front of Lafayette Square, near the White House.
Law enforcement officials across the nation nonetheless remained on high alert on Tuesday after a weekend in which caravans blocked roadways and there was an increase in threats made online.
Retailers and banks from Boston to Washington to Los Angeles searched for beefed up security. Disney and Saks Fifth Avenue were among the brand-name stores in Manhattan that boarded up their windows. And Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills has been closed for Election Day and the day after.
“Our police department will be on a full deployment,” said Patrick Burke, a former U.S. marshal for Washington, D.C. and executive director of the city’s police foundation. The city was convulsed by violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement officers last June following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “Every single officer will be working,” he said.
During a news briefing focused on cyberthreats, Christopher Krebs, director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, encouraged Americans to be patient through Election Day. “Keep calm, vote on, and then after today keep calm and let them count,” Krebs said.
Bob Bauer, a former White House counsel who is helping to lead the Biden campaign’s election protection efforts, said that the campaign was seeing “minimal issues and disruptions” around voting, and that “by and large, voting is proceeding smoothly.”
Still, a few random acts of violence did pop up. In Chicago, a man told the police that a group had clubbed his car with baseball bats as he drove near a polling site, according to Sally Brown, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Police Department. The staff at a museum in Kansas City, Missouri, moved to cover up a spray-painted message reading “Don’t Vote.”
Natalie Landreth, a senior staff lawyer at the Native American Rights Fund, had anticipated the potential for widespread voter intimidation at polling sites on or near reservations.
Weeks before Election Day, she was already preparing for potential litigation to block people from intimidating voters. But on Tuesday, she said the day “thus far seems relatively calm compared to what we were told to expect.”
Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, had sent to her family in Michigan a fact sheet from Georgetown University Law Center for encountering militias at the polls. But on Election Day, she said she had not received many calls about reports of voter intimidation.
The agents deployed by the Homeland Security Department are directed to guard federal buildings, not conduct immigration enforcement. Such homeland security tactical teams were also the subject of a report issued by the homeland security inspector general on Tuesday that said the agency had sent the teams to quell protests in Portland, Oregon, without the proper authority or training.
Chase Jennings, a spokesman for the agency, said Tuesday that the report was evidence of “politicization” in the inspector general’s office.
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