In North Carolina, site of a modern-day struggle over voting rights, a computer breakdown stalled voting in liberal Durham County, a hotbed of support for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In Nevada, Republican Donald Trump fought to persuade a judge that Las Vegas officials had illegally kept polls open after hours to accommodate long lines of Latino voters.
And in Philadelphia, Republicans and Democrats traded bitter accusations of fraud and voter intimidation, while authorities struggled to sort them out.
Those were scenes from Election Day 2016, as voters went to the polls in a divisive presidential election roiled by anxieties over race, class and the fundamental integrity of the American electoral system itself.
Today’s presidential vote was the first since the U.S. Supreme Court scrapped a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, opening the way for Republican state legislatures to enact new voting restrictions, many of which disproportionately affected voters of color.
And it was the only presidential election in history in which a major candidate – Trump – predicted that the nation’s election results might turn on massive voter fraud.
In the end, with Trump currently the favorite to win, there remained no credible evidence that widespread voting fraud occurred. And, in the coming weeks and months, the impending question to answer will be whether Republicans’ coordinated voter suppression efforts tilted the scales in their favor.
“The fraud the Trump people talked about was nonexistent, just a fallacy, a fake fear of voter fraud,” said voting law expert Jessica Levinson, a law professor and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. But she said Trump’s emphasis on fraud might have discouraged some minorities from going to the polls for fear of being harassed or investigated.
It was too early to tell how much the tough new voting rules might have cut into Democratic turnout.
“Any effect is improper and problematic,” she said. “If people have disincentives to turn out, or feel it’s a burden to show up you will have fewer people voting.”
Polls showed that even as they cast their ballots, many voters had come to question the underlying fairness of the way in which voting rights are allocated and ballots are counted in America – matters taken for granted in most election years.
Just as they were bitterly divided over the presidential candidates, voters expressed their concerns about the election system in sharply different terms.
In lawsuits leading up to the election, Democrats claimed that the motive behind the flurry of new voter identification requirements and cutbacks in early voting programs enacted across the nation was pure power politics: Republicans were seeking to win the election by keeping likely Democratic voters away from the polls. Republicans defended the new rules as common sense, nonpartisan measures intended to prevent abuses.
But in case after case, federal judges around the country repeatedly intervened to blunt the impact of new voter registration rules that they ruled discriminated against people of color.
In a high-profile case in swing state North Carolina, a federal appeals court found that local Republicans had been “almost surgical” in writing new rules that had the effect of disenfranchising prospective black voters. Some civil rights lawsuits alleging Voting Rights Act violations were still being litigated even after early voting in the presidential race had gotten underway.
For their part, many Trump supporters – egged on by the candidate himself – said they feared a “rigged” election in which the Democrats would steal the presidency through systematic voter fraud.
In campaign speeches and late-night tweet barrages – even in a Fox News interview on Election Day – Trump repeatedly raised the specter of the Democrats’ plot. He never presented evidence that it actually existed.
Nevertheless, many Trump supporters said they believed him, and some coalesced around renegade political consultant Roger Stone, who established Stop the Steal, an independent committee that said it would deploy “vote protectors” to polling places to guard against fraud.
That led to more lawsuits, with Democrats in Nevada accusing Stone of mounting a voter intimidation campaign that violated the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, which sought to protect freed slaves from racist night riders.
In all, the Democrats sued in seven states, alleging a Republican-directed voter intimidation campaign was planned. Judges generally didn’t intervene.
The controversies buffeting the voting system appeared to have shaken Americans’ confidence. Last month, a Politico poll showed that over 40 percent of all prospective voters – and 70 percent of Republicans – feared that voter fraud might skew the results of the presidential election.
A flashpoint in the controversy was the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in an Alabama case that blunted the force of the federal Voting Rights Act, a landmark civil rights law.
In court, challengers argued that the voter discrimination of the mid-1960s was a thing of the past: “The violence, intimidation and subterfuge that led Congress to pass (the law) no longer exists,” they told the court.
In 2013, a divided high court agreed and gutted the preclearance requirement: Local agencies were free to set voting rules without federal approval. If the new rules proved discriminatory, voters could still sue to get relief, the high court ruled.
Yet the actions that followed showed that voter discrimination was alive and well in the South and elsewhere.
This presidential election, 14 states had new voting restrictions in place.
Some new measures required voters to obtain identification documents and present them before voting, the most high profile of which were enacted in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Texas. Others called for more frequent purging of voting rolls and reducing the number of polling places. Still others restricted early voting programs and put new limits on registering to vote.
Few of the programs held up in federal court, where judges found them discriminatory.
The justification for the laws: combating voter fraud. But study after study has showed that these concerns remain hypothetical: Real cases of voter fraud in America are rare. Courts agreed.
Here is how the voting-access issue played out in three key states.
North Carolina: Voting rights hotbed
North Carolina was where the modern battle over voting rights began.
In 2013, just weeks after the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision, North Carolina’s Republican legislature passed one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country in the name of combating voter fraud. This summer, a federal appeals court struck down the new voting restrictions – which imposed a voter ID law, made cuts to early voting and eliminated same-day registration – saying lawmakers targeted African American voters with “almost surgical precision.”
Since then, voting rights advocates say lawmakers have tried to subvert the court ruling and continue to target black voters. Earlier this year, the North Carolina GOP executive director sent an email to local elections officials urging them to limit early voting opportunities, including Sundays, which are used disproportionately by African Americans.
In the weeks before the election, tea party-driven purges of the voter rolls also came into play: In three counties, some 4,500 voters, many of them African American, were told they had lost their right to vote.
North Carolina law allows anyone to challenge a voter’s registration up to 25 days before an election if they think the person has moved out of the county. One piece of undeliverable mail can be presented to a local board of elections as evidence that a voter is ineligible, triggering a hearing at which voters must show up or submit an affidavit to the county. If they don’t do that, they can be purged from the rolls.
In a lawsuit, the NAACP contended that many of the voters who were purged still lived at the addresses where they are registered to vote or had moved within the county.
“This is a national disgrace, this is a constitutional disgrace, and this is a moral disgrace,” said the Rev. William Barber II, head of the North Carolina state conference of the NAACP.
“Victory feels sweet,” said James Michael Brower, 60, an African American resident of rural Moore County. Even though he proudly voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and even though he still lives in his boyhood home, he was among the voters who had his right to vote challenged.
In his case, his right to vote was challenged based on a single piece of mail that was sent to his address and returned undelivered. On that basis, officials decided he had moved away and were planning to strike his name from the rolls.
Brower became one of the plaintiffs in the emergency lawsuit and regained his right to vote.
“It was super cool to be part of something historic,” he said.
The mastermind behind most of these last-minute purges was Jay DeLancy, the head of a group called the Voter Integrity Project. VIP, an offshoot of the Texas tea party group called True the Vote, claims to be a nonpartisan organization dedicated to preventing voter fraud. DeLancy has disciples all around the state who subscribe to his ideas that voter fraud is rampant.
“A big reason we were doing these challenges was to finally help the public understand how flawed the federally mandated voter list maintenance procedures are,” DeLancy said in an interview at Voter Integrity Project’s headquarters.
“I thought they’d be thanking us for finally showing them the holes in their system. Instead they lectured us and said we’re undermining the integrity of the system undermining public trust in the system.”
He defended the mass challenges, calling them “totally solid.”
“These people are not, you know, random idiots trying to go out just, you know, get people off the roll that don’t look like them or some nonsense,” DeLancy said. “They’re just trying to clean up the voting rolls in their county.”
That’s not how the federal court sees it.
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs issued an emergency injunction and ordered North Carolina election officials to reinstate the voting rights of thousands of these voters, saying the purges violated federal laws.
The judge said she was horrified by the mass purges, saying the removal of thousands of voters reminded her of a “cattle call.”
Today, in heavily black Durham County, officials said a breakdown in a computer system used to check in voters before voting broke down at midday, causing long delays and lines. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which had led the legal fight against the voter ID law, said it had filed an emergency lawsuit to extend voting hours.
“The implication of suppressing just a few votes in North Carolina can have very huge national consequences,” said Harry Watson, a professor of Southern History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A judge rebuffed the lawsuit, but election officials in Durham nevertheless kept eight polling places open after hours.
Nevada: The first challenge
In Nevada, where Trump and Clinton were running neck and neck, Republicans failed in a legal attempt to stymie the surge of Latino voters who helped Las Vegas’s Clark County shatter records for early voting turnout.
So many Latinos lined up to vote at a Cardenas supermarket in Las Vegas on Friday night that election officials kept polls open two hours late to accommodate them. When polls finally closed, more than 57,000 people had cast ballots, breaking the county record for single-day early voting.
Trump’s campaign pounced. It sued Clark County to preserve the personal information of poll workers who had kept polling stations open late and also sought to separate early-voting ballots cast after the scheduled polling hours Friday.
But a judge dismissed that request today, saying that once the court issued an order making those names public, “Anybody can get access to it, and I’m not doing that.”
“Do you watch Twitter?” she added. “I am not going to expose people who are doing their public duty helping citizens to vote.”
Trump operative Roger Stone’s Stop the Steal group had been active in Nevada, and Democrats had asked a federal judge to order pro-Trump poll watchers not to intimidate voters. At a hearing Monday, Stop the Steal pledged to remind its observers to follow federal election laws.
On Election Day, reports of threatening behavior surfaced in Nevada, though it is not clear whether they involved people affiliated with any particular group.
In the North Las Vegas airport area, voting rights advocates reported seeing a man writing down the license plate numbers of voters. Clark County elections officials responded by directing the man to stop.
At another polling place, a man with a shotgun lingered across the street from a polling site. Police were summoned and spoke with him before he left.
Clinton was leading Nevada as of late tonight.
Pennsylvania: Trading accusations
In Philadelphia, the Clinton campaign feared a Trump driven-voter intimidation campaign. Meanwhile, Trump had singled out Philadelphia as a city where Democrat-directed voter fraud was inevitable.
On Election Day, Democrats and Republicans ramped up accusations of illegal electioneering, voter intimidation and interference at the polls.
In a Twitter post that conservatives circulated as Exhibit A of Democratic meddling, a woman trained by local Republicans claimed she witnessed “voter fraud” by a Democratic committeeman who entered a voting booth to assist a voter.
“He wasn’t supposed to be helping people vote and he was,” Republican Brittany Foreman said in a video posted to Twitter. “Not only was he helping people vote, he was also giving out literature – Democratic literature in the polling place.”
Philadelphia’s Democratic County Executive Committee didn’t respond to a request for comment. As of late tonight, Trump was leading Pennsylvania slightly.
Also today, a GOP poll watcher was ejected from a polling place after complaining that a voting machine already had recorded two votes before voting was supposed to begin. Justin Blumenthal, whom police escorted away from the polls, later appeared at an election court where a judge ordered the voting machine impounded. Blumenthal’s account differed from other poll workers, who said he’d been trying to interfere with voters.
Elsewhere in Philadelphia, a conservative provocateur known for his covertly filmed videos posted a video of himself pursuing a church bus that was transporting voters to the polls.
James O’Keefe, the political activist who heads Project Veritas, which previously targeted the defunct community organization ACORN, insinuated in his social media post that busing voters to polls might be improper.
But experts said transporting voters is not illegal under Pennsylvania law.
Meanwhile, a Neo-Nazi group pledged to provide free liquor and marijuana to likely Democratic voters in the city’s predominantly African Americans wards to keep them from voting. But they were nowhere to be seen on Election Day.
Nor, in the end, were there any verifiable incidents of voting improprieties, District Attorney Seth Williams said at a news conference.
“No founded complaints of intimidation, no founded complaints of voter fraud,” as he put it, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Nor did fraudsters vote using the names of dead people who were still on the rolls, Williams said.
“We have no walking apocalypse of zombies voting all over town,” he said. “We don’t have it.”
Reveal reporters Amy Julia Harris, Amy Walters, Jennifer Gollan, Emmanuel Martinez, Andrew Becker and Shoshona Walter contributed to this story. It was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nadia Wynter. Lance Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @LanceWCIR.