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As States Certify Ballot Totals, An Extraordinary Election Comes To An End

Voters fill out and cast their ballots in Bangor, Maine on Nov. 3. More than 150 million votes were cast in 2020, the highest voter turnout rate in more than a century.
Scott Eisen
Getty Images
Voters fill out and cast their ballots in Bangor, Maine on Nov. 3. More than 150 million votes were cast in 2020, the highest voter turnout rate in more than a century.

Signs of a tattered, but resilient, voting system were on full display this week as one of the most contentious elections in U.S. history rolled toward completion.

Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina put the final stamp of approval on their official vote counts, while workers re-tallied millions of ballots in Georgia and Wisconsin to assure the Trump campaign that the initial count was accurate. Courts in Pennsylvania, Michigan and elsewhere reviewed and, almost uniformly, rejected legal challenges for lack of merit.

The 2020 election was extraordinary in so many ways. A pandemic forced election workers to shift their attention from guarding against Russian phishing attacks to acquiring adequate supplies of hand sanitizers and printing millions of mail-in ballots. But more extraordinary were the unrelenting attacks on the legitimacy of the system, primarily by President Trump and his allies, and the resulting decline in public trust.

Macon-Bibb County, Georgia Elections Supervisor Jeanetta Watson, third from left, takes questions from poll monitors during a test of the county's electronic ballot scanning system on the first day of the Georgia presidential ballot recount.
Grant Blankenship / Georgia Public Broadcasting
Georgia Public Broadcasting
Macon-Bibb County, Ga., Elections Supervisor Jeanetta Watson (third from left) takes questions from poll monitors during a test of the county's electronic ballot scanning system on the first day of the Georgia presidential ballot recount.

Routine meetings, extraordinary partisanship

The depth of these partisan divisions was reflected in almost every action taken to resolve the disputed outcome.

In Pennsylvania's Luzerne County — where earlier news that a few Trump ballots had been discarded by a temp worker was widely, and inaccurately, touted by the president as Exhibit A of a system riddled with fraud — the election board voted on Monday to certify that Trump had indeed won the county over Joe Biden.

But, in a sign of the times, the board split 3-2 along party lines.

Republican Joyce Dombroski-Gebhardt questioned the accuracy of the vote and said anyone who certified the results was "guilty of election fraud on the voters." She called for a hand recount and demanded the firing of those who had approved the county's purchase of voting machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems.

The company has become the recent focus of unsubstantiated allegations of vote tampering by the Trump campaign and right-wing conspiracy theorists.

A Democratic board member, Peter Ouellette, was equally passionate. He argued that no problem with the election was serious enough to "justify disenfranchising 156,000 voters in Luzerne County. ... Personally, I feel the strategy of unsubstantiated lawsuits, legislative maneuvering, conspiracy theories and outright lies to undermine public confidence in our most basic right to expect our votes to count is at the very least unpatriotic."

More than 500 miles away, a similar scene was playing out in a windowless conference room in Lansing, Mich. The state canvassing board had convened to certify the election results, a routine job that this year acquired unusual significance.

The board ultimately agreed to the count, but over the objections of one Republican member, who called the election, in which some tallies didn't add up, a "national embarrassment." The board agreed to his proposal to ask the Legislature to conduct an in-depth review of the state's election process so "this never happens again."

A voter marks his ballot at a polling place in Dennis Wilkening's shed on November 3, 2020 in Richland, Iowa.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
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A voter marks his ballot at a polling place on Election Day in Richland, Iowa.

Threats of violence

The Michigan board also got a taste of one of the more disturbing election developments of 2020. It heard from Monica Palmer, a Republican member of the Wayne County canvassing board who had questioned the accuracy of the Detroit vote count. She revealed that she'd become the target of threats and hate mail, including photos of naked, dead women and a warning that this could happen to her daughter.

Other Democratic and Republican election officials — more accustomed to bipartisan comity — have reported similar threats to their safety this year amid all the partisan vitriol. Many of these officials have been pilloried, from left and right, often for just doing their jobs.

Poll workers wear face masks while preparing voter ballots at the Nederland Community Center in Nederland, Colo. on November 3, 2020.
Jason Connolly / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Poll workers prepare ballots on Election Day at the Nederland Community Center in Nederland, Colo.

What's left now is a trail of partisan ill will and deep distrust among a large share of the American electorate. The Pew Research Center recently found that 59% of voters think the election was run and administered well, but only 21% of Trump voters believe that was the case, compared with 94% of Biden voters.

An earlier Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 70% of Republicans didn't believe the election was free and fair.

The irony is that, by most accounts, 2020 was one of the safest, most accurate elections in American history. Discrepancies in vote totals were minor and for the most part traceable to human error.

There were certainly glitches with mail-in voting, which was used by more voters than ever before. Ballots were misplaced and delayed, and the rules were confusing and controversial — likely topics for future legislative debate.

The future: Both more and less voting by mail

Election experts anticipate two competing efforts in the months ahead. One, to make voting easier, especially by mail. The other to impose more restrictions, to protect against possible fraud and reassure a skeptical public. If past experience is any sign, the results will differ from state to state, depending largely on who's in charge.

Still, despite this year's divisions, there were encouraging signs of electoral strength and a deep commitment to making the system work.

This included the voting rights advocate whom I watched help poor, disabled Black votersin rural South Carolina this spring as they struggled with their mail-in ballots, then proudly attached "I voted" stickers to their shirts, and rose in unison to sing the gospel song I'm on the Battlefield for My Lord.

Also the election worker in Lehigh County, Pa., who tirelessly combs through local obituaries and death records each day to ensure the accuracy of the rolls — and whose most painful moment came when she had to remove the name of her father.

And the tens of thousands of volunteers who helped out at the polls and the millions of voters who showed a belief that their votes still mattered by standing in countless lines. In fact, despite everything, more Americans turned out to vote than ever before.

Voters enter a polling place at dusk to cast their ballots at Sherman Township Hall, a former one room schoolhouse, on November 3, 2020 in Zearing, Iowa.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
Getty Images
Voters enter a polling place at dusk on Election Day to cast their ballots at Sherman Township Hall, a former one-room schoolhouse, in Zearing, Iowa.

Michigan voters were especially poignant as one after the other pleaded this week with the state canvassing board to certify the results and validate their votes.

Sumner Truax of Ann Arbor was a nonpartisan observer of the vote counting in Detroit. He said he saw no signs of fraud, just hundreds of workers performing their duties. He called it the sign of a healthy democracy that so many people turned out in the midst of a global pandemic to ensure that the system would work.

"But it's healthy only if those votes matter and it's healthy only if their work matters and it's healthy only if the gatekeepers, who are you, people like you, do their jobs," he told the board. "And as so many others have said today, your job today is not a political exercise, it's a democratic one."

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Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.