ATLANTA (Reuters) – Americans began casting ballots on Tuesday in an Election Day unlike any other, braving the threat of COVID-19 and the potential for violence and intimidation after one of the most polarizing presidential races in U.S. history.
In and around polling places across the country, reminders of a 2020 election year shaped by pandemic, civil unrest and bruising political partisanship greeted voters, although more than 90 million ballots have been already submitted in an unprecedented wave of early voting.
Many will wear masks to the polls — either by choice or by official mandate — with the coronavirus outbreak raging in many parts of the country.
Some voters in major U.S. cities saw businesses boarded up as a precaution against politically motivated vandalism, an extraordinary sight on Election Day in the United States, where voting is typically peaceful in the modern era.
In Atlanta, Georgia, about a dozen voters were lined up before sunrise at the Piedmont Park Conservancy. First in line was Ginnie House, shivering in the cold, waiting to cast a vote for the Democratic candidate Joe Biden, a former vice president seeking to replace President Donald Trump, a Republican, in the White House.
“I lost my absentee ballot and I’m not going to miss this vote,” said House, a 22-year-old actor and creative writing student in New York who had flown back just for this purpose. Of Trump, she said: “He’s dividing our country.”
In Hialeah, a predominantly Cuban suburb of Miami, Marcos Antonio Valero, 62, was voting for Trump, as he had done in 2016, and said he took the day off from his job as a construction worker to cast his ballot in person because he did not trust voting by mail.
He made no prediction as to which way Florida, a closely fought battleground state, would tip.
“It’s a secret, a mystery,” he said. “No one knows how it’s going to end until we all know.”
TENSIONS FROM TIMES SQUARE TO TEXAS
The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups said they were watching closely for signs of voter intimidation.
The ACLU’s Georgia affiliate deployed around 300 lawyers across the state at about 50 potential “hot spots” for voting trouble on Tuesday, including 15 polling places in Atlanta.
The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is deploying staff to 18 states to monitor for voter intimidation and suppression, including in some battleground counties and in cities shaken by civil unrest this year.
Police and business owners said they were taking precautions to protect property, with memories still fresh of sometimes-violent protests over racial injustice in many cities over the summer.
In New York City, the iconic Empire State Building, the Macy’s department store, and the skyscraper that houses the Trump-favored Fox News channel were among buildings that were boarded up.
On Rodeo Drive, one of the most expensive shopping streets in California’s Beverley Hills, staff stripped the display windows at Tiffany & Co. and Van Cleef & Arpels of their jewels.
“Hopefully this is all for nothing,” Kathy Gohari, vice president of the Rodeo Drive Committee, the merchants association, said on Monday as she watched workers nail plywood over luxury storefronts.
Still, fists, eggs and expletives have already flown in New York City’s Times Square in recent days among ardent Trump fans, Democrats and adherents of the anti-fascism movement known as antifa.
An alleged plot by an anti-government militia group to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, uncovered last month, has highlighted the potential for political violence on Election Day. Police in Graham, North Carolina, doused a group of anti-racism activists with pepper spray as they were marching to a polling station on Saturday.
On a Texas highway on Friday, in a spectacle reminiscent of the movie “Mad Max,” a convoy of pickup trucks mounted with billowing Trump flags surrounded a Biden-emblazoned bus filled with campaign staffers in what seemed an attempt to force the bus off the road.
Trump praised the pickup drivers as “patriots,” and expressed impatience with the Federal Bureau of Investigation when the agency said it was looking into the matter.
In the New York City area and elsewhere, convoys of vehicles with Trump flags stopped on highways and bridges, according to local media, snarling traffic in a defiant show of support for the president.
Even once votes are cast, Americans have expressed anxiety over what could be a protracted ballot count.
As the United States has suffered through the deadliest coronavirus outbreak on the planet, many states have expanded early voting to reduce contagion-spreading crowds at polling stations.
A record-setting 97.7 million early votes had been cast either in-person or by mail as of Monday afternoon, representing about 40% of all Americans who are legally eligible to vote.