Americans are bracing for an election day unlike any in US history, shadowed by threats of manipulation and violence, stoking fears that democracy itself is at stake when the polls close on Tuesday night.
It marks the end of a campaign that has been unprecedented in many ways. More than 94 million Americans had already cast their ballots by Monday, a record for early voting, in the midst of a pandemic. It was equivalent to 70% of the 2016 turnout even before election day dawned.
It is also the first election in which the incumbent president has said he would try to stop the vote count if early returns on election night show him to be ahead and has openly encouraged acts of intimidation by his supporters.
On Monday, a high “non-scalable” fence, last seen during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, was being erected around the White House. In anticipation of unrest, businesses in Washington and major city centres across the country boarded up their windows. The DC business district advised residents to “take precautions such as securing outdoor furniture and signage that can be used as a projectile”.
A poll by USA Today and Suffolk University found that three out of four voters were worried about possible violence, with only a quarter of the electorate “very confident” there would be a peaceful transfer of power if the Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, won the election.
Delivering his closing message on the last day of the campaign, Biden repeated his campaign message that the election was a “battle for the soul of the nation”.
“The character of America is literally on the ballot,” he said at a drive-in rally in Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s time to take back our democracy.”
On his final campaign stops, Trump has sought to portray his opponent’s future response to the coronavirus pandemic as a dystopian lockdown that would stifle economic and social life.
“The Biden plan will turn America into a prison state locking you down, while letting the far-left rioters roam free to loot and burn,” he told a rally in Iowa.
The air of apprehension has been deepened by repeated threats from Trump that he would seek to portray all votes not counted by election night as illegitimate. He said “we are going in with our lawyers” as soon as voting closes.
Vote-counting routinely continues for days and sometimes weeks after a US election, but the result is usually called by news agencies based on projections from incomplete counts. That is less likely to be possible this time because of the heavy early and postal voting.
It is also normal for there to be multiple legal challenges, but there are fears this year that Republicans will also seek to shut down the vote count physically through the intimidation of polling officials – as they did in Florida in 2000, the last time an election was not decided until weeks after the vote.
Trump endorsed mob tactics by his supporters over the weekend by hailing the actions of loyalists in Texas who boxed in a Biden campaign bus on the highway with their own flag-bedecked cars, forcing the bus to slow down suddenly and causing a collision between a Trump supporter’s car and a Biden official’s vehicle. Two Biden rallies were called off in the menacing atmosphere.
The FBI said it was investigating the incident, but Trump hailed the loyalist Texas group as “patriots” and tweeted on Monday that “they did nothing wrong”, advising the FBI to scrutinise leftwing groups instead.
His endorsement was echoed at a Florida rally in the early hours of Monday by the Republican senator Marco Rubio, who told a crowd: “We love what they did.” The top ranks of the party have remained staunchly loyal to the president, despite occasional expressions of unease as he has violated a series of democratic norms. One of the unknowns in the days ahead is how many party leaders will break from Trump if he tries to stop the vote count.
The Texas highway confrontation was one of a string of incidents around the country where Trump fans flexed their muscles by causing disruptions on the roads. They blocked a New Jersey highway and a New York bridge, and there were also reports of Trump supporters arriving by car at Biden rallies with the aim of forcing their opponents to break up and go home.
The election has come amid a record upsurge in cases, particularly in battleground states. Over the past week, 36% of tests in Iowa have been positive. The corresponding figure in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin was 14%.
The campaign ended with Biden maintaining a solid and reasonably consistent lead nationwide but with narrower margins in key battleground states. According to the poll aggregator fivethirtyeight.com, Biden’s margin in Florida is two percentage points and with his lead in Pennsylvania – widely considered a must-win for the challenger – was just under five points.
Trump has used his last campaign rallies to air an array of grievances, about polling numbers, the press and social media. He complained that the trending topics on Twitter were “boring”, focusing on him instead of the “scandals” and “affairs” of his opponents, and he expressed his frustration that his efforts to turn the business activities of Biden’s son, Hunter, into a major campaign issue, had failed to resonate.
“You can’t have a scandal if nobody writes about it,” Trump said.
Twitter issued a statement on Monday saying it would label as disinformation any claims about the outcome of the election “before it is authoritatively called”.
“Tweets meant to incite interference with the election process or with the implementation of election results, such as through violent action, will be subject to removal,” the statement said.
The power of disinformation was on display over the weekend with the mass circulation of a doctored video which falsely made it look as though Biden thought he was in Minnesota when addressing a rally in Florida, echoing a Trump campaign theme that the Democrat’s age impaired his mental faculties. Twitter removed the video on Sunday night, but by then it had already been viewed more than one million times.