As Randy Cortez put it, “Democracy is at stake”.
The 36-year-old voted at Los Angeles’ famous Dodger stadium on Tuesday – just one voter in what will probably be a record turnout in America’s nervy, extraordinary, election.
An incredible 100m votes had already been cast early in a contest that has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic and a divisiveness the like of which nobody can remember.
It was clear that Cortez was among those hoping that Joe Biden would end the Trump presidency. “We have a man in the office that creates more division than anyone else and allows bigotry and racism to continue in this country. I have hope that things will change.”
Earlier in the day, as Monday turned into Tuesday at midnight in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Donald Trump appeared at his final rally of the 2020 campaign.
Thousands of supporters trudged through muddy fields and waited in endless lines to hear the president speak, on the eve of what could be his defeat – or the start of another four years in power.
Trump delivered his speech in a critical swing state where the president is hoping for a repeat of 2016, when he unexpectedly beat Hillary Clinton.
In the darkness, as temperatures dipped to 40F (4C), Trump’s supporters were upbeat and optimistic, but many also said they were expecting unrest in the wake of the election.
“There’s going to be violence either way,” whether Trump or Biden wins, said Angela Young, 43. As a gun owner from a small town in Michigan, she said, she was not worried about her personal safety but added the prospect of election-related violence in the United States was “straight-up unacceptable”.
Tensions are high, captured by the news reports of boarded-up storefronts and buildings in major cities. Police departments have been canceling time off for officers.
But on Tuesday no major problems were reported at the polls, and fears of large-scale voter intimidation or harassment had not materialized by midday. Officials have warned that counting ballots could take days due to an avalanche of mail votes that take more time to process and could result in another round of court battles.
Millions across the country wore masks as they stood in socially distanced lines, filing into voting booths.
Passions are also high, with states including Texas, Arizona and Nevada having already surpassed their total turnout from the 2016 election just through early voting.
Trump rounded off his election day with a visit to his campaign headquarters in Virginia before heading to an election night party in the White House with several hundred invitees, behind a newly installed “non-scalable” perimeter fence. Biden, meanwhile, started the day at church, where he visited the graves of his first wife and his son Beau, ahead of watching the results roll in from his home in Wilmington, Delaware.
As television news channels edged into election night with caution, knowing that results could be delayed by massive early voting amid the pandemic in several critical swing states, one of the first important slices of intelligence was gleaned from exit polls. In early results from CNN’s exit polls, weighted across both early and election day voters, top of the list of the electorate’s concerns was the economy, at 34%.
The coronavirus, which Biden has made the centerpiece of his claim for the highest office, came in a surprising third place (on 18%) after racial inequality (21%). Trump’s attempt to rile up voters with his “law-and-order” pitch amid the Black Lives Matter protests appears not to have gained much traction, also coming in at 18%, though Biden’s core issue of healthcare came even lower at 11%.
Perhaps most surprising of all, 48% of those surveyed by CNN’s exit poll said they thought Trump’s efforts to contain the pandemic were going well, against 51% badly. In point of fact, coronavirus is surging through large swaths of the nation with new cases running at about 100,000 a day.
National opinion polls have consistently shown a clear lead for Biden, the Democratic former vice-president who has framed the election as a “battle for the soul of the nation”. Trump is in danger of becoming the first incumbent US president to lose re-election since fellow Republican George HW Bush was bested by Bill Clinton in 1992. However, the vagaries of the US electoral college and legal attempts by Republicans to curtail ballots cast in crucial swing states add uncertainty to the outcome of an election that Trump has repeatedly, and baselessly, claimed is rife with voter fraud.
In battleground states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Biden holds the upper hand in polling, mailed-in ballots are not counted until election day, while early counting is allowed in North Carolina and Florida, other key swing states.
Armies of lawyers have been assembled by both campaigns, voting rights organizations and conservative groups to scrutinize the counts in various counties.
But as election night got under way, the mood music remained calm. The leader of a group of 42,000 legal volunteers deployed for the election said that so far, there had not been “major, systemic problems or attempts to obstruct voting”.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said: “It appears at this stage that we are on a path to a relatively successful election day.”
The committee operates the Election Protection hotline, which provides information and assistance to Americans who encounter problems while voting.
“The problems we have seen have for the most part been isolated and sporadic,” Clarke said.
Anxiety remained high among voters that trouble could yet lie ahead. “There’s a mass divide that just seems to keep growing and growing and nobody is going to be happy with their results if their side doesn’t win,” said Christopher Henson , a voter in Ravenna, Ohio. “There’s a lot of civil unrest and it’s probably going to get worse, regardless of how the election turns out.”
Marcos Antonio Valero, who voted for Trump in Miami, said he was voting in person because he did not trust mail-in ballots but wasn’t sure of the outcome. “It’s a secret, a mystery,” he said. “No one knows how it’s going to end until we all know.”
In a sign of America’s wobbling democratic structures, Trump has demurred when asked to confirm he will hand power over peacefully should he lose. This stance has led to the president being compared to a “two-bit dictator” by his predecessor, Barack Obama, as he hit the campaign trail in recent days to stump for his former vice-president.
In his last-gasp sweep of the electoral map ahead of the Tuesday poll, Trump has held rallies in Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio, with attendees packed closely together despite the risk of coronavirus infections. Besieged by criticism of his handling of the pandemic and poor polling, Trump used his final rallies to claim that Biden would turn the US into a “prison state locking you down, while letting the far-left rioters roam free to loot and burn”. In a wide-reaching airing of grievances, Trump also took aim at Lady Gaga, the singer who has campaigned for Biden, and suggested that he would fire Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert.
Fauci provoked the president’s ire after warning that the US faces “whole world of hurt” over winter amid rampant rates of Covid infections in parts of the country. The US has already suffered more than 230,000 deaths from the pandemic, the worst toll in the world, and Fauci has warned the country may start experiencing 100,000 new cases a day as people gather together indoors in the colder months.
Biden’s campaign has centered on Trump’s handling of the pandemic, where the president has repeatedly downplayed or dismissed the severity of the virus and declined to fully endorse the wearing of masks, a key method of stemming its spread. “Elect me and I’m going to hire Dr Fauci. And we’re going to fire Donald Trump,” Biden said in one of his final campaign stops in Cleveland. Biden said it was time for Trump to “pack his bags”, adding that “we’re done with the tweets, the anger, the hate, the failure, the irresponsibility.”
Whether this momentous election dislodges Trump will hinge on places like Philadelphia, a heavily Democratic city in a state, Pennsylvania, that will be key in deciding the fate of the candidates. The sheer number of early votes in Philadelphia could mean a full tally may not be completed there until Friday.
Aa line of voters wrapped around a city block at the Kimmel Center in Center City, Philadelphia, shortly after the polls opened at 7am on Tuesday. With election workers giving out hand sanitizer, the wait in the cold didn’t seem to bother at least some people in line, who said they intentionally chose to cast their ballots in person to ensure it was counted.
“It’s a little invigorating. I know that sounds crazy to stand in a line in the freezing cold,” said Lauren Killian, one voter. She added that she was concerned about how long it would take to count all of the ballots in Pennsylvania.
“I am worried about how long it’s going to take to figure out how long the president is. Or even when something is figured out either way, is it going to be invalidated?”
Additional reporting Lois Beckett