The contests in Georgia, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Vermont were also expected to draw lower turnout, which contributed to the relative quiet. But Georgia and Wisconsin, in particular, rolled out new safeguards to avoid the chaos of primaries earlier this year in those two states, which were marked by polling place closures, poll worker no-shows and equipment difficulties for staff who were not properly trained amid fears of coronavirus infection.
In Georgia, a high-profile runoff for district attorney was expected to draw strong interest in the Atlanta area, where, during the June primary, many voters never received their mail ballots, poll workers struggled to operate new machines and voters waited in hours-long lines.
On Tuesday, one of the hardest hit precincts from the June primary, Park Tavern in midtown Atlanta, had no wait times. “I’m surprised I’m the first one here,” said Sarah Andrews, 42, a technician who trains machine operators and who voted at Park Tavern just after polls opened. “I came here early, thinking there would lines.”
Meanwhile, in a cavernous office space in Milwaukee hosting the city’s central ballot-counting operation, about 200 masked and distanced workers assembled under fluorescent lights to begin processing all ballots cast early, whether by mail or in person.
Aside from the steady whir of election scanners reading ballots, the work was quiet and efficient, with workers raising a hand when they encountered a problem and observers from both parties watching from a distance, ready to challenge ballot rejections. By midmorning, there had been very few rejected ballots, said Democratic observer Mike DeBruin.
“I’m impressed by what I’m seeing,” DeBruin said. Two Democrats and three Republicans were on hand; the Republicans, who appeared to be college-aged, said they were not authorized to comment.
Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the city election commission, said “all reports are that things are going smoothly” with counting absentees, adding: “I’m confident we’ll be successful processing them all today” and have results by Tuesday night.
Anxiety about in-person voting was on display at Lyndale Community School in south Minneapolis, where a group of six voters – all in masks, some in plastic gloves – stood silently and social distanced in the glow of the early morning sun along a sidewalk outside the building.
First in line was a married couple – Mike Wisti, 54, a musician, and his wife, Norah Labiner, 50, a novelist. The couple said they had rarely left the house since covid-19 put much of the state on lockdown in April and remained concerned about getting sick, especially amid a recent spike in cases.
“This is actually my first time out,” Labiner said.
In Connecticut, state officials said power outages brought on by Hurricane Isaias caused significant mail delays last week, which in turn threatened the eligibility of 20,000 ballots mailed to voters just last Tuesday. Officials urged voters to deposit their ballots in drop boxes rather than in the mail, and on Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) issued an executive order calling for all ballots to be counted so long as they are postmarked by Tuesday and received by Thursday. Current law requires ballots to be received by Election Day.
Across the states, the volume of mail balloting has been like nothing election officials have seen in comparable prior elections. Minnesota reported that more than 647,000 absentee ballots had been requested as of Monday, compared to 34,660 in 2016 — a “tidal wave,” according to Secretary of State Steve Simon. In Connecticut, the number was 300,000 — a first in the state, which opened up mail balloting to all voters for the first time this year in response to the pandemic.
“There’s no historical data to compare it to,” said Gabe Rosenberg, a spokesman for Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill. “Even if we did, it would be comparing apples to skyscrapers.”
Election officers in two states in particular — Wisconsin and Georgia — said they hoped to redeem their performance in primaries earlier this year. Wisconsin’s April 7 primary saw hours-long lines in larger cities including Milwaukee and Green Bay, as well as record requests for mail ballots. Wisconsin’s spring election was also beset by a series of legal actions and last-minute changes in election rules, such as the deadline for the receipt of mail ballots, which left many voters confused.
“Back in June, the covid-19 got to everything,” said Regina Waller, a spokeswoman for Fulton County, Ga. “We weren’t fully prepared. We lost sites, we lost workers because of it. This time we’re prepared.”
On Tuesday, however, Milwaukee was scheduled to open 170 polling locations, slightly down from its normal number of 180 — a vast improvement over the April 7 election, when just five locations opened. One reason for the improvement: Gov. Tony Evers (D) called up the National Guard to augment local election staffs across the state.
Similarly, during Georgia’s June 9 primary, a mass exodus of poll workers in Fulton County, home of Atlanta, prompted the closure or consolidation of roughly 40 polling places out of a total of about 200. The Park Tavern precinct experienced severe lines primarily because it served more than 16,000 voters — more than triple the usual amount.
On Tuesday, state and county officials said they expect all but a tiny handful of locations to open — and none of the debilitating delays of June. “Tomorrow will be like a World Series preview to November,” Waller said.
The Park Tavern precinct, for instance, was redivided among three voting locations.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger also worked with local governments to prepare for Tuesday. The state will position hundreds of technicians at polling locations to ensure the proper functioning of new machines rolled out for the first time this election cycle, which many poll workers didn’t know how to use in June due to a lack of training.
Among the issues in June: Poll workers inserted electronic card readers into the machines the wrong way, and they thought power issues were to blame when machines didn’t turn on, when the real issue was that the power button needed to be pushed and held for five seconds.
Raffensperger’s office plans to help local officials label all machinery and electronic card readers in time for the November election, a spokesman said.
His office also discovered that many of the poll closures in Fulton occurred at public buildings, such as schools and firehouses, where officials deemed it unsafe to conduct elections because of the health crisis. But Georgia state law requires public buildings to make themselves available for elections — and local elections officials are now on notice to enforce that law on Tuesday and in November.
“A lot of the big-picture national headlines about the complete meltdown really just occurred in Fulton,” said Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs. “There were some minor issues throughout the state, but nothing compared to Fulton. So that’s a relief, and it means that it’s fixable.”
One additional item to watch Tuesday: how long it takes local election officials to count mail ballots and publish the results. In Connecticut, officials are forbidden to start counting mail ballots received on Election Day until polls close at 8 p.m. — though they may start in the morning on ballots received before Tuesday.
Still, turnout Tuesday is likely to be far lower than it will be in November, limiting how intensely elections systems will be tested.
Simmons reported from Milwaukee. Holly Bailey in Minneapolis and Ingrid Arnesen in Atlanta contributed to this report.