The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Small protests flare and tension grows as ballot count continues

Votes were still being counted in Pennsylvania on Nov. 5 as President Trump’s reelection campaign attempted to halt vote-counting in the state. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Various groups across the country pledged to continue protests outside ballot-counting locations in Phoenix, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Detroit on Thursday, as the final tallying of ballots continued in key states.

Many of the demonstrations were spurred by conspiracy theories that centered on unfounded fears of fraud, including suggestions that Democrats are creating forged ballots for presidential candidate Joe Biden. The rumors have rapidly proliferated among right-wing social media users, fueled in part by baseless allegations from President Trump and his high-profile associates.

“STOP THE COUNT,” Trump tweeted on Thursday, as the growing tally of ballots narrowed his lead over Biden in some states.

On Thursday evening, a text message circulated in the Philadelphia area urging Trump supporters to demonstrate in front of the city’s downtown convention center, where ballots were still being tallied. “Radical Liberals & Dems are trying to steal this election from Trump!” the text read; a conspiracy theory that has been repeatedly debunked by election officials, and for which the Trump campaign has presented no evidence.

Since Election Day, the Trump campaign has filed or threatened a wave of legal action in pivotal states, including Pennsylvania, Nevada and Michigan, turning to the courts in an attempt to stop vote-counting.

In the early evening, a couple hundred Trump supporters gathered at the Clark County Election Headquarters in Las Vegas, waving American flags and carrying “Trump 2020” banners. They held signs reading “Don’t steal my vote” and “Count all Legal Votes”

The rally was peaceful and demonstrators remained on sidewalks well away from the building where votes were being counted in the closely competitive state. Some chanted “Stop the steal,” others “Fox, you suck” and “Four more years.”

The rhetoric was echoed by president’s supporters, who have staked out ballot-counting sites in Philadelphia, Phoenix, Atlanta and Detroit.

Vincent Capcino, a 56-year-old auto mechanic, who was among the approximately 50 pro-Trump demonstrators outside the Philadelphia convention center Thursday afternoon before the campaign’s latest call to action, said he has heard that election officials “won’t let anybody in to watch” and believed Democrats are “trying to steal the election.”

Pointing to an election results ticker on his smartphone, Capcino said, “The Trump administration knew it was going to go down like this in Democratic cities.”

Across the street, where about a hundred counterprotesters had gathered — the two sides separated by a metal police barricade — Chris Arnold, a 40-year-old private investigator, said he feared a civil war between Democrats and Republicans was coming.

“I think it’s a situation where things might get rough real soon,” said Arnold, who is Black and believes Trump’s appeal to his supporters is rooted in racism. “I’ve been saying a long time I think a civil war between Democrats and Republicans is coming, because we still have this racist monster here in our faces. They’re not willing to conform, and we’re tired of it.”

Local officials across the country spent the weeks leading up to the presidential election bracing for unrest during and after the vote, amid widely forecast delays in learning who won. They worried that a prolonged period of uncertainty or a contested outcome could be destabilizing.

Protests have been relatively limited in size and number, particularly in comparison to those who took hold of cities from Minneapolis to Portland, Ore., during a summer of racial justice demonstrations and counter-protests.

In Arizona, where Biden holds a narrow lead, officials on Thursday fenced off a parking lot outside the ballot-processing center in Phoenix, creating a “free speech zone” away from the building’s front steps.

Bob Huhn, a spokesman for Maricopa County — Arizona’s largest county, where more than a quarter-million ballots remained to be counted Thursday — said the fence was meant to ensure the safety of election workers, the media and demonstrators.

More than a hundred pro-Trump demonstrators — some of them armed — had gathered outside the center the night before, chanting “Let us in,” and questioning the integrity of the process.

The protesters said they were angry about a conspiracy theory circulating on social media alleging that Republican votes in the county were being invalidated because poll workers gave them Sharpie pens. Election officials have repeatedly offered assurances that bleed-through from the pens did not cause problems.

One local reporter wrote on Twitter that she and a photographer received threats from protesters. And police escorted county election workers to their cars at the end of the night.

“Peaceful activities will be respected and protected,” Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone said in a statement Thursday. “Acts of violence, threatening behaviors or criminal damage of property will not be tolerated.”

In Atlanta, about 50 Trump supporters on Thursday stood outside the city’s State Farm Arena, where ballots are being tallied, waving signs that read “Stop the Count” and “Four More Years.” At one point, they exchanged a quick volley of expletives with another group that drove by in two cars blasting the YG and Nipsey Hussle protest song, “FDT,” which curses Trump by name. By the late afternoon, the crowd of Trump supporters had dwindled to about a dozen, while a handful of people across the street waved Black Lives Matter signs.

In Michigan, which The Washington Post and other news outlets called for Biden Wednesday night, about a dozen Trump supporters lingered on Thursday afternoon outside Detroit’s TCF convention center, where ballots were tallied. An elaborate float, labeled the “Trump Unity Bridge” and featuring a motorcycle and a large wooden bald eagle, stood near blaring ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” from its speakers. A small, rival contingent of Biden supporters held signs nearby that read “COUNT EVERY VOTE.”

Pro-Trump demonstrators who wanted to be admitted into the building to watch the ballot counting on Wednesday afternoon had banged on the convention center’s windows, chanting “Stop the vote.”

Small anti-Trump demonstrations and other protests have also flared in a handful of cities since the polls closed, with some participants saying they believe that Trump is trying to steal the election.

Hundreds of anti-Trump activists and other marchers on Wednesday night demonstrated in New York City and Minneapolis, with other protests and demonstrations occurring in Portland, Ore., Los Angeles and Seattle.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety said Thursday that it arrested and released nearly 650 people “for being a pedestrian on a freeway and public nuisance” when demonstrators roamed onto an interstate. In Portland, police said some demonstrators broke windows, sprayed graffiti and blocked traffic.

The right-wing tea party Patriots Action group said it would hold “Protect The Vote” rallies in Phoenix, Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia on Thursday. Conservative activists also put calls out on social media for people to join a “#StopTheSteal” protest outside the Clark County Election Department in Las Vegas, where election officials said Thursday that more than 63,000 mail-in ballots, as well as 60,000 provisional ballots, remain to be counted.

Liberal activists called for more demonstrations in support of the ballot counts on Friday.

Moriah Balingit reported from Detroit; Hannah Knowles from Phoenix; Reis Thebault from Atlanta; Robert Klemko and Maura Ewing from Philadelphia; Holly Bailey from Minneapolis; Shayna Jacobs from New York; Scott Wilson from Los Angeles; and Ryan Slattery from Las Vegas. Abigail Hauslohner, Mark Berman, Derek Hawkins and Emma Brown reported from Washington.