As word finally came Saturday after an exhausting and tense week that Joe Biden will become the 46th U.S. president, cities across the nation braced for a darker side: potential violence.
Some supporters of President Donald Trump flocked to state capitols as encouraged by a campaign called “Stop the Steal,” an effort to delegitimize the vote count that was booted from Facebook for spreading misinformation and inciting violence.
“We all know why Joe Biden is rushing to falsely pose as the winner, and why his media allies are trying so hard to help him: they don’t want the truth to be exposed,” Trump said in a statement after the race was called. “The simple fact is this election is far from over.”
Amid a few exchanges of heated words, the initial counterprotests were mostly peaceful in the hours after Biden’s victory was announced. But Trump backers remained defiant. Hundreds massed outside the state Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, waving signs saying “It’s not over” and chanting “We won!”
Several dozen Biden supporters stood nearby, urging the group to accept the election results.
Michael Elkins of Westland, dressed in an American flag suit, said he suspected election fraud after the push for absentee voting because of COVID-19 safety concerns.
“If Joe Biden won legitimately, I’m OK with that,” Elkin said. “Election integrity is a cornerstone of society that is crumbling away.”
After Trump’s yearlong crusade against mail voting, the president’s voters were reluctant to vote that way while Biden supporters embraced the method because of the coronavirus pandemic. Biden supporters dominated mail voting by a 2-to-1 margin nationally. That’s why Trump appeared ahead in several battleground states on election night, but the race shifted to Biden as mail-in ballots were counted.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at the state Capitol in Salem, Oregon, waving American flags and Trump signs, as well as signs questioning the election results. Some chanted, “Four more years!”
Jo Rae Perkins, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican against Democrat Jeff Merkley for U.S. Senate, spoke to the crowd.
“This is an appeal to heaven,” she said. “We need to pray for Trump, for his family and for his Cabinet.”
The protest drew the attention of the Oregon State Police, as well as counter-protesters. OSP tweeted two arrests were made amid the protests. The state police also retweeted posts from reporter Sergio Olmos with Oregon Public Broadcasting, showing an officer asking a group of Black Lives Matter supporters to “move up the street to de-escalate,” which the group agreed to do.
Some of Trump’s supporters looked on the bright side. This was not the outcome that Krishnan Seshasayee, an IT architect from Chicago who says he leans Republican, wanted and worked for but he says he accepts it.
“This election is really not that bad for conservatives,” Seshasayee said. Republicans shrank Nancy Pelosi’s lead in the House and he’s confident they will retain control of the Senate. And, thanks to Trump, he says there are fewer activist judges on the Supreme Court.
As for claims of voter fraud, Seshasayee added: “When you can’t prove the allegations, you have to trust the process. I will accept whatever is the outcome of the judicial process in that case.”
About 75 Trump supporters gathered outside the election tabulation center in downtown Phoenix, where the counting remained underway.
“This election has not been called,” Jake Angeli yelled. “This election has not been called!” Angeli, a regular at pro-Trump rallies who typically wears a wooly fur hat with horns, urged others to not “believe that lie! They got their hands caught in the cookie jar and we’re going to the Supreme Court!”
Outside the Capitol in Albany, New York, Trump supporters hoisted U.S. flags and posters saying “stop the steal.”
At the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, protesters marched with signs that read “stop election fraud.”
As Biden supporters flooded the streets in Austin, Texas, the Trump faithful were steadfast, holding out hope for a different outcome.
Otilia and Jesse Fraga of Pflugerville, Texas, said they weren’t ready to give up. “I want it to go to the courts. I don’t care who wins as long as it is legitimate,” Otilia Fraga said. “He still has a chance. If we’re going to have justice in this country, we’re going to have to follow the law.”
Chris Wodke, a resident in the city of Milwaukee, said the media had no right to call the race Saturday and nobody should be declared president until all the votes are tallied officially and all the challenges are litigated.
“I want to see legal votes counted and state laws followed,” she said. “I realize my side could lose legitimately. If we lose fairly, that’s how it goes.”
For months, Trump has sought to cast doubt on the integrity of elections that rely significantly on vote-by-mail ballots. He has claimed, without proof, that the election has been rigged against him, and he continued to fan those flames Saturday. But election experts say that taking time to count votes is not a sign of misconduct.
Bipartisan experts agree that voter fraud – stuffing ballot boxes or voting multiple times – is an exceedingly rare crime with almost no chance of affecting the presidential election.
Though Trump has repeatedly claimed that absentee ballot fraud is widespread, only 207 entries from the conservative Heritage Foundation database are listed under the fraudulent absentee ballot category. Not only is that a small slice of the overall Heritage database, it represents an even smaller portion of the number of local, state and national elections held since 1979, which is as far back as the database goes.
And even those numbers may be inflated. USA TODAY journalists, working with Columbia Journalism Investigations and the PBS series “Frontline,” investigated the examples cited in the Heritage database and found that they presented “misleading and incomplete information that overstates the number of alleged fraud instances and includes cases where no crime was committed.”
But officials across the U.S. had reason to be concerned about violence. Armed protesters – some carrying shotguns, some handguns and others military semiautomatic rifles – have congregated throughout the week outside offices where workers were counting ballots. They showed up at voting centers fueled by unfounded accusations by Trump that Democrats were trying to steal the election.
In several battleground states, dueling groups engaged Friday in a war of words with protesters chanting “count the votes” and other groups shouting “stop the steal.”
Many major U.S. metropolitan areas have taken on the unsettling look of fortresses all week as restaurants, retail stories and other businesses have boarded up windows.
A Belgium-based think tank that focuses on preventing deadly conflicts around the world – usually in places such as Ethiopia – had the U.S. in its sights for the first time, issuing a report warning about election violence.
“The 2020 U.S. presidential election presents risks not seen in recent history. It is conceivable that violence could erupt during voting or protracted ballot counts. Officials should take extra precautions,” warned the International Crisis Group.
Some of the protests and rallies earlier in the week took on a festive and joyful air. Demonstrators outside ground zero – Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House –on Friday danced to go-go music and hugged friends as smiles abounded.
Some carrying weapons outside polls say their mission is a peaceful one.
“I’m here to protect a peaceful protest,” said Keith Owen, who carried a semiautomatic assault rifle and wore a handgun in a holster strapped to his leg. His vest held extra ammunition. Owen, who described himself as a veteran who served in Afghanistan, was among roughly 100 Trump supporters gathered for a third straight day Friday in front of the Phoenix elections center.
The county treasurer in Detroit, Eric Sabree, said he had closed his office because of threats.
In Philadelphia, two men with handguns were arrested Thursday night near the convention center where the vote-counting was continuing. The men, ages 42 and 61, had driven up in a Hummer from Virginia and did not have permits to carry the weapons in Pennsylvania, police said. The car had a window sticker for the right-wing conspiracy theory QAnon.
Contributing: Anne Godlasky, Eric Richards, Jessica Guynn USA TODAY; Mark Johnson, Lansing State Journal; Chuck Lindell, Shonda Novak, Austin American-Statesman; Natalie Pate, Statesman Journal (Ore.); The Associated Press