A major voting access dispute in the key battleground state of North Carolina is shaping up as the nation’s biggest Election Day legal battle as voters nationwide flock to cast ballots in one of the most contentious presidential elections in U.S. history.
As of 8:30 pm, a national phone hotline operated by voting rights groups had fielded more than 35,000 calls, many of them unverified complaints about voter intimidation, voting equipment malfunctions and voter registration disputes.
Voting rights advocates say the weakened law, incendiary campaign rhetoric and confusion over controversial state laws that restrict voting opportunities have created a perfect storm for Election Day problems.
In Durham County, North Carolina, which is 40 percent African-American, malfunctioning electronic voter registration rolls, known as “electronic poll books,” created problems for early voters on Tuesday.
“When they go down, it means that the poll workers don’t have a way to look up voters in order to check them in so that they can start voting,” said Pam Smith, president of Verified Voting, a non-partisan group that advocates for transparency in elections.
Durham poll workers were forced to check voters’ registration using a paper back-up system that was slower, but allowed voters to cast ballots, Smith said. But many voters weren’t so lucky.
Some gave up and left without voting after waiting in lines for nearly an hour because of the problems.
The majority-Republican Durham Board of Elections unanimously petitioned the state election board to keep Durham polls open for 90 minutes past the normal 7:30 pm closing time tonight to make up for the lost voting opportunities.
At an emergency meeting in Raleigh on Tuesday evening, the state election board rejected that proposal and decided instead to allow two Durham County precincts to stay open for an extra hour while six others were allowed to stay open for an extra 30 minutes.
The board said the county's request of a blanket 90-minute extension was not in line with how they interpret the statute. There were eight precincts in Durham County where voting was stopped for at least 15 minutes today, the board determined.
An unidentified NAACP representative who called into the meeting expressed disappointment with the board’s decision. “We had a unanimous decision in Durham County for 90 minutes,” he said. “I’m deeply concerned on behalf of all of the voters who left. Voting is the most important tool in democracy.”
Along with the NAACP, congressmen G.K. Butterfield and David Price, Democrats who both represent the Durham area, also called on the board to grant the request.
In a statement, Butterfield said the board “would have to give a very compelling rationale,” for not fully granting the request.
The switch to paper poll books in Durham also caused the Bethesda Ruritan Club precinct to run out of the paper cards voters sign when they arrive to vote, according to the state board of elections. The problem has been resolved, the board reported.
The state board sent staff to Durham to assist with voting operations and county employees were also sent to precincts to get information about voting disruptions and to make sure they had adequate supplies.
Elsewhere in the nation, reports of voter intimidation, misinformation and harassment were rampant. In Ingham County, Michigan on Tuesday, an East Lansing man tried to keep two women wearing hijabs from voting.
In Coral Gables, Florida, the Clinton campaign said that Trump supporters were blocking poll access and intimidating voters at polling sites.
The Trump campaign sued the county registrar in Clark County, Nevada claiming that polls were open two hours past closing time during the early voting period.
In Mansfield, Georgia, Republican Mayor Jefferson Riley misleadingly posted on Facebook that “Republicans vote on Tuesday, 11/8 and Democrats vote on Wednesday, 11/9." The post was later removed after criticism on social media. Riley told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, that the post was meant as a joke.
And in Pennsylvania, conservative political activist James O’Keefe, circulated video footage of a church bus bringing voters to the polls. “We’re going to be releasing video here today doing some improper things, busing some people around, maybe they shouldn’t be doing it,” he says in the video. Transporting voters to the polls is not illegal.
In Washington, D.C., tens of thousands of phone calls have come into the Election Protection coalition’s voter assistance hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE, said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Among the complaints: poll workers in Pennsylvania allegedly asking voters who they planned to vote for and reports of shouting matches erupting between voters in line to cast ballots, said Karen Hobart Flynn president of Common Cause.
Clarke said a “substantial number” of intimidation complaints were coming from Florida.
In Broward County, Florida, voters at the Hollywood Public Library reported “conduct they deemed intimidating” involving a group of people “aggressively assembled” at the polling site, Clarke said. One woman claimed the group made contact with her vehicle, which caused her to leave without voting, Clarke said.
In Jacksonville, Clarke said a person representing a political party was asked to leave a polling place but had refused orders to do so.
And in Miami, complaints have come in about a deputy polling official who refused to enforce the “campaign-free zone” outside the perimeter of a polling place. Clarke said the official reportedly said “whatever rules he determines will apply are the rules that will apply today.”
Unverified complaints to the hotline also claimed that Florida Atlantic University students were told they could only cast provisional ballots that would not count because their dorm address was considered a hotel.
The reports are consistent with an uptick in intimidation and harassment complaints during this election cycle that require more time and intervention to resolve, Clarke said.
We're going to dig into all these reports more closely and carefully. But most importantly, we want to ensure that voters are able to cast a ballot free from from intimidation or harrassment which requires making sure that unauthorized people are not inside our polls today.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
“We’re going to dig into all these reports more closely and carefully,” Clarke said. “But most importantly, we want to ensure that voters are able to cast a ballot free from from intimidation or harassment which requires making sure that unauthorized people are not inside our polls today.”
With the exception of the situation in Durham, most of the reported problems on Tuesday reflect personal problems rather than systemic breakdowns, said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization.
As the peak voting hours approach, Browne Dianis said long lines at the polls remain a concern because many voters end up leaving without casting a ballot. By law, voters in line when polls close must be allowed to vote, she said.
Alex Daugherty and Jessica Campisi contributed to this report.