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Black Voters Turn Out to Polls Despite Election Day Confusion

Election Day was the first nationwide test of the new voting restrictions that proliferated following the 2020 presidential election.

A sign directs voters to a polling place in Milwaukee on Tuesday. While some localities reported smooth operations, others experienced confusion tied to last-minute changes and allegations of voter intimidation. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Black voters were at the center of legal disputes and polling-site confusion on Election Day, as voting rights advocates responded to allegations of intimidation at the polls and Republican interference in ballot counts.

In Philadelphia, election officials made a last-minute change to the ballot-count process on Tuesday that could delay the vote tally for days, in response to a Republican lawsuit that targeted Pennsylvania’s Blackest city. In Chicago, voters reported confusion over precinct locations, including on the South Side, after nearly half of Chicagoans were assigned a new polling place before Nov. 8.

Election Day was the first nationwide test of the new voting restrictions that proliferated following the 2020 presidential election along with allegations of voter fraud and conspiracies from the far-right. Nineteen states enacted laws that tighten voting access, including ending the automatic mailing of absentee ballots and implementing strict voter ID rules. Early voting opened in many states this year with fewer polling stations and mail-in ballot drop boxes, changes that disproportionately affect Black residents.

Lawmakers who supported those bills often say they were created to prevent voter fraud and protect democracy. But with claims of systemic fraud widely debunked, opponents say the new rules are thinly veiled voter suppression efforts intended to make it more difficult for citizens, specifically those in communities of color, to cast their ballot.

Compounding the new laws, Republican groups filed a flurry of lawsuits in the lead-up to the election, seeking to limit which ballots should be counted and how — eleventh-hour changes that could significantly slow down ballot counts.

Incidents of voter intimidation and efforts to manipulate the vote count were reported across the country in the lead-up to Election Day. In Arizona, far-right groups and armed people were spotted at ballot drop boxes. In California, residents reported Republican door-knockers grilling them about their voting practices. In Maryland, a Republican candidate’s campaign manager was recorded telling supporters to vote “as late in the day as possible” and create “long, long lines.”

Voting rights experts worry that the new restrictions are a continuation of voter suppression tactics that date back over 160 years. Following the post-Civil War constitutional amendments that gave Black men voting rights, some lawmakers in Southern states enacted disenfranchisement policies, such as the grandfather clause and literacy tests, that cut the Black male voter population.

In Louisiana — after the grandfather clause, poll taxes, and other methods of disenfranchisement were implemented — the Black male voter population dropped from about 100,000 to 1,000, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Similar steps were then taken in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia. 

But those problems seemed to have little impact on turnout. While Election Day ballots are still being counted, early voter numbers far exceeded those of the previous midterm cycle in 2018. As of Nov. 7, more than 40 million early voters had been counted this year, surpassing the 11 million early voters in 2018. In five states, more than 1 million early voters were counted, and four of those — Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas — are Republican-led states where new barriers to voting have been enacted. 

On the whole, problems with ballot access were isolated. In Georgia, Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the secretary of state’s office, called Election Day “wonderfully, stupendously boring.”

Even in the midst of an uncharacteristic rainstorm in South Central Los Angeles, Black voters braved the elements to cast their ballots — in some cases for one of the record number of Black candidates on this year’s ballots. Though Los Angeles is a Democratic stronghold, voter Raymond Jones, 48, said casting his ballot in this year’s election seemed especially important. The city could elect its first woman and second Black person as mayor: Karen Bass, a U.S. representative and Los Angeles native. 

“This city is changing quickly,” Jones said. “We need someone who is from the neighborhood and understands its issues.”

Broken machines and voter harassment

Still, problems erupted in some counties where eleventh-hour changes to election processes created disputes and confusion.

In Florida on Tuesday, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to allow federal election monitors inside polling stations, a regular practice by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division since enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The department deployed monitors to 64 jurisdictions in 24 states to ensure polling stations were in compliance with federal law. 

In a letter to federal officials, DeSantis’ general counsel wrote that the state would send its own monitors to the polling stations in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties — where the Black population ranges between 17% to 30%, according to Census figures. A Justice Department spokesperson told Capital B that DOJ election monitors remained outside the polling stations.

DeSantis’ interference came months after he announced the arrests of 20 formerly incarcerated people, mostly Black, who had cast ballots in the 2020 election, on allegations of voter fraud.

In Beaumont, Texas, a majority Black port city that borders Louisiana, Black voters reported being harassed and intimidated during the state’s early voting period. A suit brought by the town’s NAACP chapter alleges that poll workers were aggressive toward Black voters and asked them to recite their addresses out loud, even after they were verified. 

Ahead of Election Day, a federal district judge ruled that election workers in Jefferson County, where Beaumont is located, were barred from scrutinizing the identities of Black voters.

And in Maricopa County, Arizona, one-fifth of the region’s voting machines were not working for much of the day. Voters were allowed to leave their ballots to be entered into the machines once they were operating again, or they were told to return hours later to cast their ballots themselves. 

While the issues were spread evenly throughout the area, in South Phoenix — the county’s Black Belt — some voters said that they did not want to risk losing their right to vote. 

“They said that we can slide it in the machine, but I don’t want to risk it,” Josh Erb, a South Phoenix voter, told the Arizona Republic. “If it’s not working, I’m not going to place my vote.”