After Warnings It Could Go Off the Rails, the Election Actually Ran Smoothly

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In Georgia, a high school senior organized her classmates to be poll workers so voters would not have to wait hours in line like they did back in June.

In Wisconsin, Milwaukee officials leased the whole floor of a downtown office building to serve as the headquarters to count a record number of absentee ballots.

And in Michigan, the secretary of state organized three shifts of more than 700 people each in Detroit who counted twice as many ballots as they had for the August primary in just over half as much time.

Even as the nation waited for the call designating the winner — Joseph R. Biden Jr. was declared the victor on Saturday morning — it had reason to breathe a sigh of relief. Despite warnings of violence, threats of foreign interference, rampant disinformation, cuts to the Postal Service, President Trump’s sowing of distrust and a pandemic that forced the relocation of thousands of polling places, the machinery of American democracy adapted and held up this past week.

The result was a relatively smooth election free of the hourslong lines and vote-suppressing shenanigans that have characterized the voting experience in recent years, particularly during the primaries of the coronavirus era.

The performance was the result of months and, in some cases, years of planning for a transition from Election Day voting to expanded absentee and early in-person balloting. It involved elections administrators at all levels of state and local government and tens of thousands of new poll workers, lured to perform a civic duty that had never before required taking a personal health risk to allow their fellow citizens to exercise their right to vote.

“There was never a moment when I didn’t think it was going to work because I believe in the American people,” said Adrian Fontes, the top elections administrator in Maricopa County, Ariz., which includes Phoenix and 60 percent of the state’s voters. “We are a raucous, dysfunctional family who will stand together in the best of times and in the worst of times. If you can’t believe that then you have no business running American elections.”

For months heading into November, there was a growing and influential crowd of American doomsayers warning of one calamity after another that could befall the election. Now that the voting is over and took place without a catastrophic structural failure, a crippling cyberattack from abroad or extralegal interference from the Trump administration, those who spent the summer and fall sounding alarms said that without their warnings the worst-case scenarios might have come to pass.

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Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor who convened a group to brainstorm ways the Trump administration could disrupt the election, said the warnings prompted more planning from the news media and local government agencies.

And with the counting, recounting and legal challenges still underway, Ms. Brooks said the country’s deep divisions and easy access to disinformation meant the threat of political violence remained high.

“This is like in Harry Potter where in Book 3 everybody thinks Voldemort is dead but he’s not,” she said. “Nobody should prematurely think we can relax and stop worrying about right-wing extremism.”

Delays in counting some mailed-in absentee ballots were expected in Arizona, Pennsylvania, New York and California, which still has 3.6 million of its 16.9 million ballots cast left to be counted — and ballots arriving until Nov. 20 can be counted in California as long as they were postmarked by Election Day.

Boards of election in New York City and its Long Island suburbs have not even begun to count hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots, a process that delayed the results of its June primary for weeks as officials struggled to adapt to elections altered by the coronavirus.

At the heart of the election was an army of poll workers, hundreds of thousands of Americans who agreed to work very long hours doing rather tedious jobs at modest pay to ensure their neighbors could vote.

More than 700,000 people signed up to work at polling sites through Power the Polls, an umbrella group of dozens of local and national civic organizations and corporations that connected workers to local elections administrators.

Mallory Rogers, a 17-year-old high school senior in Rome, Ga., worked a 13-hour shift as a poll worker during Georgia’s dysfunctional June primary — after receiving no training for how to operate the state’s new voting equipment.

“I showed up and I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said.

When her school year began, Ms. Rogers, who also worked a 15-hour shift for Georgia’s primary runoff in August, started a club at Rome High School to recruit friends to serve as poll workers. About a dozen other students signed up, which, along with other new poll workers, helped double the number of people working the polls in Floyd County.

On Monday, Ms. Rogers and her friends went to set up the polling sites and found campaign signs within 150 feet of the entrance — a no-no under Georgia law. But a woman who spotted them removing the signs did not believe the teenagers were poll workers and called the police.

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“We got pulled over by five sheriffs and they didn’t believe us either,” Ms. Rogers said. “It was four high schoolers in the car with five cop cars behind us. That was a terrifying experience.”

Ms. Rogers’s job on Election Day was to scan voters’ identification cards and log them in before directing them to voting machines. Lines were longest in the morning, but nobody waited more than 30 minutes, she said.

For Ms. Rogers, Georgia’s two Senate races requiring January runoffs was the best possible outcome. She had assumed her club would have to disband after the election, but now it will continue, aiming to recruit more poll workers and in the meantime registering voters before the state’s Dec. 7 deadline.

“I will definitely be working,” she said.

With much of the voting shifting to absentee ballots, concerns about running a fair election spiked over the summer after a Trump megadonor, Louis DeJoy, was installed to run the Postal Service and ordered operational changes that led delivery rates to drop sharply.

But a series of court orders from judges across the country in response to a dozen lawsuits filed against the Postal Service forced Mr. DeJoy to reverse his changes, such as limiting overtime and demanding mail trucks run at certain times. Over the last week, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ordered sweeps of postal facilities to find any ballots that had yet to be delivered and expedite them.

In the end, the Postal Service delivered more than 60 million ballots, with likely only hundreds or a few thousand arriving after election deadlines, according to data filed in federal court and lawyers who have been monitoring the agency’s performance. While there were recriminations over disenfranchising even a single voter, there was no systemic breakdown.

“There were no reports in Colorado of any type of slow down,” said Jena Griswold, the secretary of state in Colorado, which mailed ballots to every registered voter.

All those ballots that arrived in the mail and in drop boxes brought new stresses on election administrators.

Some of the bleakest scenes of voting during the pandemic had come earlier in the year in Milwaukee, which for the state’s April presidential primary reduced its number of polling places from 180 to five because the city could not assure poll workers they would be safe. Voters waited for hours in the rain to vote.

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By November, Milwaukee had trained 3,300 new poll workers — up from 200 available in April, and had 600 dedicated to counting the 169,000 absentee ballots. The city spent $250,000 on plexiglass partitions at the 175 polling places it opened for its November general election. And unlike in April, everyone who signed up to work the polls in November showed up.

Instead of the hourslong lines in April, the enduring image of Milwaukee’s general election was Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of Milwaukee’s election commission, getting a police escort at 4 a.m. on Wednesday for the five-block journey to hand-deliver the results to the Milwaukee County Courthouse.

Even that, Ms. Woodall-Vogg said, was a pretty normal experience.

“In previous elections, the police followed me in my car,” she said. “This time it was a matter of how am I going to get there efficiently with a media barrage. It wasn’t out of the ordinary.”

In Michigan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson recruited more than 30,000 election workers to staff the polls and, in Detroit, work around the clock counting the state’s three million absentee ballots.

In Detroit, that meant building three teams of 700 to 800 people each who would begin counting ballots when the polls opened on Election Day and work continuously until the job was finished midday Wednesday. In the August primary, with half as many absentee ballots cast, it took Michigan officials two full days after the election to finish counting, Ms. Benson said.

Among the new poll workers was Crystal Reed, a 52-year-old from Warren, Mich.

Ms. Reed, who works for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, arrived at an elementary school at 5:20 a.m. to begin setting up for the polls opening at 7. She then spent all day working the tabulator, helping people insert their ballot into a machine to be counted before making sure they left with the ubiquitous “I Voted” sticker.

She stayed until 9 p.m., leaving upbeat about democracy and her place in it.

“I love to make people happy and to see the smiles on these people’s faces, it was really nice,” Ms. Reed said. “I think when you’re smiling and you’ve got that positive energy, it can bounce off of them and make them happy too.”

Luke Broadwater, Nick Corasaniti and Jesse McKinley contributed reporting.

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