[Updated at 11:30 p.m. EST] Carol Santa Cruz walked out of her neighborhood polling place on Election Day with a sticker on her chest and a smile on her face.
Around her, the line of voters – residents from the Echo Park district of Los Angeles – grew as the sun began to burn off the early morning chill. Some brought their children. Others, like Ms. Santa Cruz, brought their pets. People chatted amicably about politics, the weather, the wait.
The sight of her fellow citizens coming out to vote – and the feeling of casting her own ballot – filled Santa Cruz with hope.
“Yes, the system is broken,” she says. “But there are people out there who want to fix it. Look how many kids are here, not in school this morning. Those are parents telling their children, ‘It’s important to vote.’ ”
“That keeps me hopeful.”
The optimism Santa Cruz brings to the ballot box – and the orderly, if somewhat slow, queue to the voting booth – runs counter to the violence and intimidation that many anticipated ahead of Election Day. As polling places around the country opened their doors the morning of Nov. 8, residents arrived, took their places in line, and waited to cast their ballots.
Some voiced concerns about election rigging. Others were skeptical of whether the outcome of the election would lead to much good for the country. Still others, like Santa Cruz, expressed a sense of joy and purpose.
In all, Americans went to the polls with a mix of elation, anxiety, relief, and worries about the immediate future – the emotional residue of an especially fraught election season. But at several polling places visited by Monitor reporters Tuesday, American voters seemed unusually engaged.
“I’ve lived here since 1970, and I’ve never seen it so crowded,” says Dorothy Hall, an African-American former insurance executive in Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood. “I’m happy, I’m happy to see the turnout.”
She brought her 9-year-old niece, Kaden, to witness the civic duty of voting.
“Kaden was complaining about how long it was taking, and I told her, I stand here and wait because I remember when I was in her age range, and my parents not being allowed to vote,” says Ms. Hall, who retired in 2011. "The land that they leased [in Georgia], the owners, if they found out my parents had voted, their lease wouldn’t be renewed.”
Expectations across the country were for higher-than-normal turnout.
“It seems plausible that it’s going to be very high-turnout election,” says Adam Berinsky, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Political campaigns over the last 10, 15 years – especially since Obama – have gotten a lot, lot better at figuring out what are the ways we can get people to vote.”
Concerns about 'rigging'
On Tuesday, a variety of claims of voter fraud and intimidation hung over the nation. In the states with the tightest races, both parties and independent voting-rights organizations sent lawyers to polling places to help resolve conflicts.
The Department of Justice also deployed more than 500 staffers across 28 states to look out for civil rights violations, as white nationalist and alt-right groups announced plans to monitor polling sites. Democrats and Republicans alike have filed last-minute lawsuits alleging either voter intimidation or voter fraud.
Yet only a handful of states had reported incidents of violence, suspicious behavior, or uncertainty over voter identity requirements or polling locations. By the end of the day Tuesday, it was unclear whether a shooting near a polling place in California was related to the election. Elsewhere, problems tended to stem from faulty machines, leaving droves of unhappy voters waiting for hours in line.
Still, following Donald Trump’s well-publicized remarks that the election is rigged, the concern among some voters centered on the integrity of the process.
“A lot of stuff goes on,” says Paul, a conservative voter in Warminster Township, part of a swing county outside Philadelphia. He asked that his last name not be published. “I’m definitely concerned.”
“It’s rigged no matter what,” adds Anthony Godshall, who is preparing for law school in the same district. “The system is rigged. The Electoral College is rigged.”
In Public School 139 in the Queens borough of New York, Russian immigrant Vladimir Michaels voices broader concerns.
“I've been here since I was 13, and because I live in New York City I vote mostly Democratic,” he says. “But this year, this whole process was just so biased against Donald Trump.”
“I came from Russia, this is what they did in Russia, this was the kind of propaganda, this is the same as what's happening now,” Mr. Michaels says.
Fears of voter intimidation also took hold in some rural areas. In Newton County, about an hour outside of Atlanta, Virginia Phares, who voted for Clinton, said a mass of Trump supporters had gathered at a nearby polling place – an attempt, she thought, to intimidate voters. Her husband Robert says he decided not to volunteer to help at the polls because “I was worried I’d be seen as an intimidator.”
Confidence in the process
Those who turned out to vote in Democratic, inner-city districts, however, more often tended to dismiss both the prospect of intimidation and claims that the outcome of the election could be tampered with in any meaningful way.
“It’s not going to happen in this neighborhood,” says Patrick Bell, a clerk at the Silverlake Public Library in Los Angeles. In 35 years of voting, he says, this has been the scariest, most charged election he’s participated in. Despite that, Mr. Bell doesn’t think there’s much of a chance that the winner would have somehow rigged the results.
“Maybe one or two ballots in 10 million” would be problematic, he says. “But this is what it’s all about. If I didn’t believe this could make a difference, I wouldn’t be here.”
Others criticized the media for riling up the public.
“I feel like a lot of the anxiety is media-driven,” says Daniel, a lawyer voting in the upscale neighborhood of Candler Park in Atlanta. “You watch CNN and you see 12 people screaming at each other and losing their mind on TV. I don’t feel like that really reflects the actual national mood, more how that mood is being portrayed back to us.”
That the tense campaign season is almost over – and that the predictions of violence seem to be overblown – brings a modicum of relief to some voters across the country. But many more are keeping a wary eye on the days and months following the election.
“I don’t think that this will be the last day,” says Wendy Brigode, a Los Angeles jewelry designer. “There’ll be contesting. There’ll be people trying to impeach [whomever gets elected]. And on and on.”
“I think we all felt different things, such as fear or anger. Those things are meant to stop you, keep people from moving forward,” says Santa Cruz, also in Los Angeles. “This isn’t where it stops.”
Across the country in New York City, where the polls are abuzz with energy, Nelson Arevalo prayed for the best.
“I'm hoping we can get past all this,” says Mr. Arevalo, a project manager for a flooring company in Queens. “Everybody can kind of just take a breath and say, ‘Alright, let’s try to do something together,’ so we'll see what happens.”
This article was reported by Jessica Mendoza in Los Angeles; Patrik Jonsson in Atlanta and Newton County, Ga.; Francine Kiefer in Warminster Township, Pa.; Harry Bruinius in New York; and Henry Gass in Boston. It was written by Ms. Mendoza.