So last weekend, the 24-year-old graduate student found an old piece of plywood in the garage, painted the letters “V-O-T-E” on it and propped it against a tree.
He explained: “I wanted to be seen, and I wanted to be heard.”
Millions of Americans have also wanted to be heard. In a year when the act of voting felt more precarious than ever, more than 94 million had voted in the 2020 election by Monday, casting their ballots early or by mail in record numbers in virtually every state in the nation. Tens of millions more will don masks, and in many places warm clothes, to vote the old-fashioned way — in person, on Election Day. They’ll do it despite — and in many cases, because of — the isolation and obstacles of this unusual year.
Those who have voted have lost jobs or loved ones to the pandemic or have battled the coronavirus themselves. They have withstood rain and heat and lines that lasted from morning until dark to register their electoral choices, risked exposure to the virus and navigated dizzying rule changes about signature requirements and drop boxes and ballot envelopes. They have been inundated with unsubstantiated attacks by President Trump on the integrity of the election.
They were helped by the unseen labor of thousands of state and county election administrators, some of them stumbling through messy primaries but then rallying to get ready for November, gearing up for massive demand for mail and in-person voting with rush orders of envelopes and high-speed scanners and backup rosters of election workers.
None of that felt inevitable at the start of the year, when the arrival of the pandemic collided with the first primaries of the 2020 campaign. Acute shortages of poll workers forced election officials to shutter many voting locations. Voting rules were changed to accommodate the health crisis, only to be overturned by the courts. States that had previously handled a trickle of mail voting suddenly faced a deluge.
At the same time, Trump ratcheted up a long-standing partisan battle over voting access, seizing on changes spurred by the pandemic to foster doubt in how America selects its leaders. He spent much of the year downplaying the virus and trashing mail voting, claiming without evidence that it invites widespread fraud and would allow Democrats to steal the election. He threatened to withhold funding from the U.S. Postal Service to make it harder to vote by mail.
Republicans also filed dozens of lawsuits to block states trying to expand voter access in the face of the pandemic; they said rule changes such as extending ballot deadlines, letting states start processing mail votes before Election Day or lifting witness requirements jeopardized the security of the election. More recently, Trump has threatened to block ballot counting after Election Day and ask the courts to decide the race. His campaign has also shifted its legal focus in recent days to challenge the eligibility of individual ballots in Nevada and Texas.
The GOP efforts were met with a well-funded counterattack from the left, with Democrats and allied civil rights groups filing dozens of lawsuits seeking to loosen voting rules around the country.
In the end, many states prevailed in their efforts to send mail ballots and applications to millions of Americans, with at least 84 percent of voters eligible to vote by mail. NBA teams offered up their arenas as polling places. Election officials got creative, in one case keeping polls open for a 36-hour stretch.
Much remains uncertain, including how many Americans will ultimately turn out. The country could learn the results of the White House race on Tuesday, or it could take weeks for states to count ballots — or even longer for the campaigns to fight it out in the courts.
What is clear already is that the voters’ will is especially strong this year. Those who have cast ballots are young and old, Black and White, conservative and liberal. They never miss an election, or they sat out last time. A few logged all-day road trips or flew across the continent to vote in person. In historic numbers, across the political spectrum, they have latched onto voting as an essential act.
“You have nothing to lose if you do, and you have a lot to lose if you don’t,” said Tiffany Cisneros, 32, who voted Friday in San Antonio after losing her mother, grandfather and a 35-year-old cousin to the coronavirus this year. Cisneros did not participate in 2016 because she didn’t think her vote mattered. “If everyone who thought that voted, maybe the outcome would’ve been different.”
Long before the coronavirus reached the United States, the 2020 election was on track to be a referendum on whether all Americans have equal access to the polls.
The fight over voting rules had already emerged as a mobilizing force on the left. It fueled Democrat Stacey Abrams’s hard-fought campaign for Georgia governor in 2018, when she highlighted the disproportionate effect of strict voting rules on people of color. Though she lost the race narrowly, Abrams aimed a spotlight on the issue of voter suppression, spurring outrage and voter participation.
That same year, then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke stormed across Texas in an upstart challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R), electrifying Democratic voters who had felt marginalized in a conservative state where they did not believe their vote could make a difference. Although O’Rourke also lost narrowly, the groundwork he laid is widely credited with contributing to Texas’s record-smashing turnout this year.
Meanwhile, Trump was regularly promoting the notion of voting fraud among his supporters. After his 2016 victory, he made baseless claims that millions of illegal voters had given Democrat Hillary Clinton a victory in the popular vote. And one of his first actions in office was to establish a commission, led by Vice President Pence, to document voter fraud.
The commission collapsed after failing to do so, but the president continued to push the issue. In 2018, he accused Democrats without evidence of powering their takeover of the House of Representatives with fraud in several key California races.
When the pandemic set in, and election officials realized that Americans would demand safe alternatives to voting in person, Trump was quick to seize on the new movement to expand voting by mail.
“Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting,” the president tweeted on April 8. “Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
It wasn’t just the president’s assault on mail voting that gave voting-rights advocates and Democrats immediate cause for concern. It was whether a sprawling electoral system run a thousand different ways and with wildly varying resources could bear the weight of the wholesale transformation that was needed to conduct safe and secure elections.
“With all the other trouble that we had, what would a public-health emergency mean?” veteran Democratic election lawyer Bob Bauer, who has led former vice president Joe Biden’s voter-protection effort this year, recalled asking at the time. “And the spring results were really alarming.”
In March, with the coronavirus spiking in the Northeast and states shuttering businesses and imposing strict rules on public gatherings, the extent of the challenges facing election officials came fully into view.
In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine delayed in-person primary voting just hours after a judge had ordered the election to go forward — and also hours before voting was scheduled to begin, on St. Patrick’s Day. The whiplash among local election officials played out in real time. At one point, the Twitter account for the Wayne County, Ohio, Board of Elections, told the public: “We have NO official word regarding the status of tomorrow’s election. Please stay tuned.”
Ten states with primaries scheduled in April followed Ohio’s lead.
Yet something else began emerging as well: a political divide over how to hold safe elections during a pandemic.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, along with public health officials, tried to delay the state’s April 7 primary, but they were thwarted by Republican lawmakers who insisted on going forward — to avoid confusion, they said, among voters.
In the end, the state Supreme Court agreed with Republicans — and dozens of jurisdictions couldn’t keep on enough poll workers to open more than a single voting location. Milwaukee, the state’s largest city and home to the vast majority of the state’s Black population, retained enough poll workers to open just five voting locations instead of the typical 180.
The April 7 primary revealed the challenges of ramping up mail voting quickly in a state not accustomed to it; many voters complained that they were forced to vote in person after their absentee ballots never arrived in the mail. A state tally at the time showed that as many as 9,000 requested absentee ballots had not been sent to voters by Election Day.
The day also offered one of the first glimpses of the kind of dramatic image that has come to define the 2020 election: endless lines snaking through parking lots, around buildings and along sidewalks with masked voters spaced apart and waiting for hours, determined for their vote to count despite the pandemic.
“We decided to risk our lives to come vote,” Ellie Bradish, 40, said that day, standing in a line of about 400 people outside Milwaukee’s Riverside High School. “I feel like I’m voting for my neighbors, all the people who don’t have the luxury to wait this long.”
The Wisconsin debacle opened up a yawning partisan divide over the administration of elections, triggering outrage from voting-rights activists and Democrats who accused Republicans of intentionally pushing ahead with an in-person election to improve their own chances in contests where they stood to benefit from low turnout.
But it also produced a notable result: the defeat of an incumbent conservative state Supreme Court justice whom Democrats had accused Republicans of trying to protect by going forward with the primary. It was one of the first inklings that voters were not going to let the pandemic deter their access to the polls — and could influence the outcome as a result.
“The weaponization of the global pandemic as a tool of voter suppression kind of backfired,” said Angela Lang, the leader of the Milwaukee-based Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, which focuses on turning out Black voters. “And I think one big takeaway in April was that, if people weren’t able to vote, come hell or high water they were going to come up with a plan to vote in November.”
Dueling campaign strategies
A week after the Wisconsin primary, the complexities of the GOP’s pandemic strategy came more fully into view. The same week Trump was telling the public that voting by mail is “corrupt” and “RIPE for FRAUD,” his own party was sending a very different message to Republican voters in Pennsylvania.
“Voting by mail is an easy, convenient and secure way to cast your ballot,” read a mail piece the Republican National Committee distributed across the Keystone State. “Return the attached official Republican Party mail-in ballot application to avoid lines and protect yourself from large crowds on Election Day.”
Party leaders insisted there was nothing contradictory about their actions; Trump was right, they said, to oppose the expansion of mail voting with rule changes that lifted what they called necessary safeguards against fraud: signature-matching rules, witness signature requirements and Election Day ballot deadlines.
“The argument that Republicans are making it harder to vote is just not true,” said Justin Riemer, the RNC’s chief lawyer. “We’ve wanted transparency, access to the polls and to make sure that election officials are following the law.”
Still, Republicans filed lawsuit after lawsuit to curtail rule changes that would make it easier for voters to cast ballots in a pandemic.
They scored some key wins, preventing absentee voting from expanding in states such as Texas and upending plans in several states to accept mail ballots that arrive after Election Day.
But many judges across the country were dubious of their warnings of widespread fraud, calling such claims speculative.
The flurry of litigation caused uncertainty and headaches for local officials, including Chris Davis, elections chief in Williamson County, Tex., a fast-growing suburb of Austin. As the parties fought over such issues as whether to allow more than one ballot drop-off location in each county, administrators felt paralyzed, afraid to think “out of the box” about how to expand voter access for fear of attracting a lawsuit, he said.
“It was like being a spectator in a tennis match,” he said. “The orders, the stays, the remanding of the stays. From an election administrator’s standpoint, the murkiness of the landscape really dulled our creativity to find innovative ways to administer this election.”
At the same time, Trump’s attacks on mail voting were driving suspicion among GOP voters — and alarming Republican strategists.
In several spring primaries, Democrats had embraced mail ballots in far larger numbers than Republicans. As campaign operatives tried to encourage Trump supporters to vote by mail, they began hearing from more and more voters around the county who said they didn’t trust it. In one particularly vivid example in June, a group of Michigan voters held a public burning of their absentee ballot applications.
Polling confirmed the trend, with a Washington Post-University of Maryland survey from September showing that 71 percent of Republicans preferred to vote in person, compared with 39 percent of Democrats.
The summer also brought a new controversy that would rock voter confidence: widespread mail delays across the country.
The new postmaster general, a former logistics executive and Trump donor from North Carolina named Louis DeJoy, had instituted policy changes at the U.S. Postal Service blamed for the delays, which led to backlogs of crucial items such as prescription medicines and Social Security checks.
Then in August, Trump announced his opposition to $3.6 billion in election aid for states and a $25 billion emergency injection for the financially ailing Postal Service, because he wanted to restrict how many Americans could vote by mail.
“If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money,” the president told Fox Business Network. “That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting. They just can’t have it.”
Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, later signaled that the administration would consider the aid, and DeJoy, in heated testimony before a House committee, said that the safe and timely delivery of election mail this year was his “sacred duty.”
Inside the Biden campaign, officials viewed the Postal Service issues as fixable — but still worried that the headlines would discourage voters from using the mail.
“That was a delicate balance,” Bauer said. “We needed to address the issues while not contributing to an irreversible loss of public confidence in the mail.”
A bigger priority, Bauer said, was helping state and local election officials, in the absence of an influx of federal aid, prepare their systems for November. Much of the money came from nonprofits, including grants totaling $400 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
“It was hundreds of millions of dollars that started pouring into the states and localities that could accept the private money,” Bauer said. “That was just a huge, huge piece of this.”
A deluge of voting
Signs that voters planned to overcome such challenges for the fall election surfaced long before the first mail ballots were issued or the first early-voting location opened its doors.
On social media, Americans started spreading images of a single word: Vote. They wore masks and flew flags from their doorsteps emblazoned with the command. “Vote” was painted on basketball courts and taken up as a refrain online by Kylie Jenner, Lady Gaga and the cast of Hamilton.
A “vote” flag was also the top seller this year for the Texas-based company Flags for Change, said its founder, Michael Green, 31 — until he sold out last weekend.
“It’s something that you can put out every time there’s an election in your area and motivate your neighbors,” Green said.
At the Democratic National Convention in August, speaker after speaker also drove home the theme.
“We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast, too, because we’ve got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to,” former first lady Michelle Obama exhorted Democrats, wearing a “vote” necklace in the videotaped address.
At rallies across the country, meanwhile, Trump urged his supporters to turn out and not let Democrats silence their voices. He warned that his opponents would try to manipulate mail ballots.
“You have to make sure your vote counts, because the only way they’re gonna beat us is by doing that kind of stuff,” the president said in Pennsylvania in September.
Election administrators in tiny towns and enormous cities were nervous. They had hired extra poll workers, secured sanitizer and protective gear, obtained new equipment to process mail ballots and prepared voting locations to accommodate social distancing and long lines.
They launched apps that would show them how many voters were casting ballots per hour at each location and formed strike teams that could fan out to troubleshoot problems.
And then the ballots started flooding in.
Early and mail voting exploded across the nation — in battlegrounds and in states where the outcome was never in doubt. In Montana, which Trump won in 2016 by 20 percentage points, the number of votes cast as of Sunday approached 96 percent of 2016 levels. Hawaii, which Clinton won by 32 points, surpassed the 2016 count last week.
The numbers have been most dramatic in Texas, where voters surged to the polls despite some of the most restrictive voting rules in the nation. After advocates lost court battles to allow anyone to vote by mail during the pandemic or expand ballot drop-off locations, undeterred Texans shattered previous turnout records. By Sunday, more than 9.7 million votes had been logged — a stunning 108 percent of the total vote count in 2016, with Election Day voting still to come.
“It blew us away,” Davis said. “There was this pent-up enthusiasm of voters who wanted to get it done.”
Still, amid all the celebration of such milestones, this year’s battles have taken a toll on some voters’ faith in the process.
Jean Thomas, a straight-ticket Republican voter who was passing out GOP literature at a polling location north of Charlotte on Friday, said she was so intent on casting a ballot for Trump that she voted early — and then checked her status on the state elections board website every day until her vote registered.
“I don’t usually do that,” she said. “I don’t trust the system. I don’t trust the mail, period. I wouldn’t consider it.”
Jordan Rudner, 26, a law student in California who is registered to vote in Dallas, said she never received her absentee ballot, despite hours on the phone with elections officials. She ended up spending more than $600 to fly home to cast her vote for Biden on Friday, Texas’s final day of early voting. An election judge had to call the county elections office to cancel her mail ballot before she could vote in person, she said.
“The amount of effort that I expended to cast my ballot, which should be a fairly simple process, is not something that most people can do or are willing to do,” Rudner said. “And they shouldn’t have to.”
Arelis R. Hernández in San Antonio and Pam Kelley in Charlotte contributed to this report.