COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — This year’s midterms are playing out against the backdrop of former President Donald Trump’s persistent falsehoods about losing the 2020 election, a relentless campaign that will have implications for voters across the country as they cast their ballots.
The baseless claims and conspiracy theories have prompted new laws in several Republican-led states and sowed distrust of voting machines. They have led conservative groups sympathetic to Trump’s claims to challenge voters’ registration status and recruit observers and workers for polling places.
All this could complicate voting that is now underway in many states, through Election Day on Nov. 8. For most voters, casting a ballot is still likely to be trouble-free. But the new voting procedures and political dynamics since the last presidential election already are having an effect in some parts of the country.
Republican legislatures have created a variety of fresh restrictions on registration and voting. Trump’s refusal to accept his loss and the peddling of false claims by him and his allies have stirred anger among his supporters, and some of that has been channeled into harassment and even death threats directed toward election officials. On top of that, local election offices are still dealing with lingering fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
This has led to unprecedented pressure on local election offices and a changed landscape to navigate for some of the nation’s 217 million registered voters. During the primaries, polling places were bedeviled by short staffing, ballot printing errors, aggressive poll watchers and even malware attacks on voting equipment.
Help is available to those who feel they are being harassed or kept from their right to vote. Whether voters are casting mailed or in-person ballots, here is what they can expect.
STAFFING AND POLL WORKER SHORTAGES
A punishing stream of death threats, harassment and misinformation plaguing election workers has led many of them to throw in the towel. This has left many offices across the country short-staffed — and one in Texas completely unstaffed — as the Nov. 8 election nears.
Their added workload also includes responding to a flurry of public records requests and sweeping challenges to thousands of voters’ rights to cast ballots by activist groups who believe the 2020 election was stolen. Election officials have said most of those challenges are irrelevant, but some people still face questions about their eligibility when they try to vote.
Poll worker positions are often going unfilled, as the hassles of the job — long hours, low pay and a perceived increase in physical risk — outweigh the feeling of fulfilling a critical civic duty.
Election denial added to an already brewing crisis, as predominantly older poll workers declined to work during the coronavirus pandemic. An online poll worker tracker on the Ohio Secretary of State’s website indicated that more than half the state’s counties still needed volunteers as of this week, with early voting already underway.
Errors on printed ballots are nothing new, but these perennial administrative snags promise to draw new scrutiny this fall amid heightened election tensions.
Printing errors marred primary elections in Oregon and Pennsylvania earlier this year, forcing local election officials to redo or recount thousands of mailed ballots. In Oregon, a Democratic state lawmaker called for an investigation into the fiasco, which delayed results in a U.S. House race in a state that has exclusively voted by mail for 23 years. The race was called 10 days later.
Issues have continued into the general election in some places. Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, appointed a supervisor to oversee the election in Pueblo County, citing confusion by the clerk after some voters received ballots with an incorrect state House race and without a county commissioner race.
Voters also should be mindful that signature ID and deadline requirements for mail-in and absentee ballots may have changed in their states since the last election.
Federal law requires that voters who aren’t listed on official rolls but assert they are registered and eligible be offered provisional ballots.
Some election offices also might be dealing with supply chain problems affecting computer hardware or paper for ballots, although that did not emerge as a problem in the primaries.
DROP BOX DRAMA
Ballot drop boxes remain a popular option for many voters, despite restrictions Republican-led legislatures have imposed on their number and location after 2020.
An AP analysis found no evidence that the receptacles are subject to widespread fraud, vandalism or theft, a claim promoted in the discredited film “2000 Mules.” Yet bands of “drop box monitors” have begun springing up around the U.S. to stake out the boxes and watch — they say — for nefarious activity.
The Arizona secretary of state’s office this week referred a report of voter intimidation to the U.S. Department of Justice and the state attorney general’s office after a Maricopa County voter said she was approached and followed while depositing her ballot in a drop box.
POLLING PLACE CONFLICTS
Election officials will be watching out for newly aggressive poll watchers, who may seek to invade voters’ space as they vote or poll workers’ space as they help voters or prepare ballots for counting.
Poll watchers have been the traditional eyes and ears of the two major political parties, but a new crop who believe election conspiracy theories have signed up for duty. In some Republican-led states, they have been given more leeway to challenge voters or processes, creating an air of uncertainty as Election Day approaches.
Voters in some parts of the country may see more uniformed law enforcement officers at polling places, but not for traditional peace-keeping. Instead, promoters of Trump’s claims have floated the idea that county sheriffs can access voting machines and intervene in how elections are run. Some have pledged to do just that.
In response, voter advocacy organizations are planning a counter-presence in some states to support voters at the polls.
Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said interfaith religious leaders trained in de-escalation techniques— dubbed “peacekeepers” — will be on call during early voting and on Election Day “to help bring the temperature down.”
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division also has said it is monitoring for violations of election laws that prohibit discrimination or intimidation of voters based on race, color, national origin, religion or language. Violence or threats of violence or intimidation against any voter at a polling place should first be reported to police via 911, then to the department at 1-800-253-3931 or https://civilrights.justice.gov/.
In addition, a nonpartisan coalition of voting rights groups is providing assistance to voters across the country on Election Day and during early voting where that occurs. Election Protection runs the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline, which connects voters with individuals who can provide guidance when encountering problems at the polls.
Groups include the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Common Cause.
WATCHING FOR MACHINE TAMPERING
Officials and security experts will also be on high alert for tampering with electronic voting machines and poll books, amid heightened concern that conspiracy theories related to the 2020 presidential election could inspire some voters or even election workers to meddle with equipment.
An election worker in Michigan was charged with two crimes in September after a witness reported seeing him place a USB flash drive into an electronic poll book at the close of the state’s Aug. 2 primary. A similar incident in Colorado, thought to be caused by a voter, forced poll workers to take a machine out of use during that state’s primary.
Any such attempt would likely be unsuccessful in altering votes, but taking machines out of service could lead to longer waits and frustration for voters.