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Voting 2020: Officials brace for lines and lawsuits as polls open on Election Day

The threat remains for issues to arise, from the routine Election Day headaches — such as long lines and voting machines malfunctioning — to uniquely 2020 problems, including the threat that the coronavirus pandemic poses to voters and poll workers alike and the heightened fears law enforcement and elections officials have about intimidation and conflict occurring at the polls.

As the polls opened, Republicans in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit that took aim at how election officials in Democratic-leaning Montgomery County handled absentee ballots that arrived before Election Day.

The plaintiffs allege officials in this suburban Philadelphia county conducted “pre-canvassing” of ballots before 7 a.m. ET Tuesday and allowed people to fix perceived defects in their ballots. The Republicans want any changed ballots set aside.

Montgomery County officials say they have complied with the rules. The dispute might affect only a fraction of ballots in this county that backed Democrat Hillary Clinton four years ago. The GOP complaint identifies roughly 1,200 votes that might be defective out of roughly 223,000 absentee ballots that had been cast in Montgomery County as of Tuesday morning.

Elsewhere, voting rights groups say they are bracing for long lines on Election Day after officials shuttered polling places because of the pandemic and potential confusion over many states’ new voting processes this election.

Election Day could bring thousands of partisan poll watchers into balloting locations, the result of a stepped-up effort by President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee to deploy legions of volunteers to look for any voting abnormalities. Democratic poll watchers will be on hand as well.

Mail-in ballots may delay tallies

Election challenges from the pandemic extend beyond the polls, as the millions of mail-in ballots are expected to lead to a delay in the counting of votes once the polls close — particularly in the battlegrounds of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where the state legislatures failed to pass laws for processing absentee ballots before Tuesday.

“Look, the country is on edge,” North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said Monday. But voters “should take comfort in knowing that they will be the ones who determine the winners of these elections — not any politicians, not any lawyers,” said Stein, a Democrat.

Despite election officials’ warnings that it may take several days to finish counting ballots, Trump has continued to falsely claim that the count is supposed to be completed by Election Night. It’s politically beneficial to him to make the false suggestion because more of his supporters are expected to vote in person on Election Day, while more voters for Democratic nominee Joe Biden are expected to vote through the mail.

Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s chief election official, said it would likely be Wednesday before the state’s unofficial results were reported due in part to the high number of absentee ballots. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said this week that it could take until Friday before complete results were available for all Michigan jurisdictions.

Lawsuits expected

Even before polls opened on Election Day, both presidential camps were gearing up for legal confrontations.
The changes to voting rules due to the pandemic sparked a litany of court cases over rules related to voting and the counting of ballots, and rulings continued right up to Election Day. On Monday, a Nevada judge tossed a GOP challenge that sought to stop the use of a signature verification software for not being stringent enough and to let poll watchers get closer to officials counting ballots.
In Texas, Republicans challenged more than 125,000 votes in Democratic-leaning Harris County, which includes Houston, because they were cast at drive-thru polling places, but a judge dismissed the suit Monday on technical grounds, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing.
Build your own road to 270 electoral votes with CNN’s interactive map

But Harris County officials opted to close all but one of 10 drive-thru polling places on Election Day because the judge had questioned the validity of using tents as polling locations. The one remaining drive-thru site that will remain open Tuesday is the Toyota Center, which has “walls and a roof” and meets the judge’s definition of a building.

Pennsylvania could be the source of messy post-election legal fights. Last month, the US Supreme Court declined to take up Republican challenge to a state Supreme Court ruling that absentee ballots could be accepted three days after Election Day, so long as they were postmarked by Tuesday, even if the postmark is not legible.

But some of the court’s conservative justices suggested the state ruling was unconstitutional, and the late-arriving ballots are being segregated in case of additional legal disputes, though the state is counting them.

Trump, who has sought to cast doubts on the integrity of vote counting, has warned in the closing days of the campaign that he plans to dispatch his lawyers to key swing states such as Pennsylvania. “As soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers,” the President told reporters over the weekend.

In Florida, where 29 electoral votes are stake, a Biden campaign spokesperson in the state said that about 4,000 lawyers have been mobilized to address any problems. She added that the Democrats’ voter protection team in Florida is more than twice the size of the team in 2016.

Alia Faraj, a spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida, said the GOP had volunteer poll watchers ready to document any irregularities and to ensure election officials comply with the law.

Poll watching

This election marks the first presidential contest since 1980 in which the Republican National Committee and the GOP presidential nominee will work together to monitor polling activity. In 2018, a federal judge allowed a consent decree to expire that for decades had sharply restricted the RNC’s “ballot security” activities without prior judicial approval.

Freed from court supervision, the Republicans have geared up to deploy volunteers to monitor polling activity. But it’s not clear how many they have recruited. Trump campaign officials have not responded to requests for comment.

In Michigan, a key battleground that Trump won by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016, a long line of Republican-aligned poll watchers waited to check in Monday at the TCF Center in Detroit, a convention center that is serving as central counting site for the city’s absentee ballots.

Voting rights experts say they are on watch for voting intimidation and suppression at the polls, especially after Trump encouraged his supporters to go to the polls to guard against alleged voter fraud. There have been sporadic complaints about voter intimidation in the leadup to Election Day, but it has not been “systemic or widespread by any stretch,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Karen Hobert Flynn, the president of Common Cause, told reporters on Monday: “We need to let our election officials do their job and count every vote because that is what democracies are supposed to do.”

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

CNN’s Curt Devine, Kelly Mena, Annie Grayer, Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.


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