For the vast majority of the 40 million Americans who have already voted in the midterm elections, the process was smooth and unremarkable.
But the broad view belies signs of strain: A court ordered armed activists to stop patrolling drop boxes in Arizona. Tens of thousands of voter registrations are being challenged in Georgia. Voting rights groups have trained volunteers in de-escalation methods. Voters have been videotaped by groups hunting for fraud as they drop off their ballots.
And Republican candidates across the country, from Arizona to Pennsylvania, continue to amplify Donald J. Trump’s false claims of corrupted elections.
Two years after a presidential election warped by lies and disrupted by violencesuspicion and fear have become embedded in the mechanics of American democracy. As another Election Day nears, intimidation has crept up to levels not seen for decades, while self-appointed watchdogs search for fraud and monitor the vote.
And election officials say they feel increasingly on edgeready not just for the frenzy of Election Day but the chaos of misinformation and disputes that may follow.
Even Republican election officials said they were braced for a renewed onslaught, one most likely to be fueled by their own party.
“I’ve felt like I’ve been stabbed in the back repeatedly so much that I don’t have anything but scar tissue,” said Clint Hickman, a Republican on the county board of supervisors in Maricopa County, Ariz., home to Phoenix.
Like some other election offices, the Maricopa election office has beefed up its security in preparation for Tuesday. After being a target of right-wing protests in 2020, the building has been fortified with a new metal perimeter fence. Last month, an email to election officials promised to “find” their personal addresses and made reference to the violence of the French Revolution. It was referred to the F.B.I. by the Arizona secretary of state.
Though the early voting has been largely uneventful, many experts and officials are braced for disruptions after polls have closed, when activists and lawyers are prepared to challenge ballots and dispute counting procedures, and losing candidates who have cast doubt on the integrity of the process may file lawsuits.
It is easy to see the potential hot spots. In Pennsylvania, thousands of ballots have been set aside because they do not include proper signatures or dates. The state Supreme Court recently ruled they should not be counted, in response to a Republican lawsuit. But the court also ordered election officials to segregate and preserve them, setting the stage for a future legal fight.
In Wisconsin, a Republican state lawmaker is suing to stop the state from counting military ballots, claiming there are security weaknesses in the system. The lawsuit was filed by the Thomas More Society, a conservative legal group that has backed the election denial movement.
More than 100 lawsuits have already been filed — compared with 70 at this point two years ago — a surge of litigation from both parties and their allies. On the Republican side, dozens of lawyers and firms that sought to overturn the 2020 election are again working for parties and candidates this cycle.
Democrats and outside groups have contributed to the litigation, often pushing for leniency in counting absentee ballots and challenging local Republican officials’ plans to hand-count ballots — a nod to newfound, widespread suspicion of electronic voting machines on the right.
In Nye County, Nev., one such plan to count early ballots by hand has been halted by a lawsuit from the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. In Cochise County, Ariz., a similar effort is being litigated in court.
Even if litigation does not change the results, the 2020 election demonstrated the ability of unsuccessful lawsuits to starkly affect politics in other ways. The many lawsuits filed by Trump campaign lawyers, Republican officials and outside groups in 2020 failed in court, but they seeded a movement of supporters who believe elections are rigged and broken. That movement is responsible for much of the activism and paranoia surrounding this week’s election.
In Clark County, Nev., home to Las Vegas, election skeptics have been monitoring the absentee ballot processing, asking questions rooted in conspiracy theories about hacking voting machines.
In Maricopa County, where the first “Stop the Steal” protest was held outside the county Elections Department office the day after the 2020 election, armed volunteers dressed in tactical gear stationed themselves outside a ballot drop box in Mesa, the Phoenix suburb.
Last week a judge issued a restraining order against the right-wing group, Clean Elections USA, that organized the drop box operation in Mesa, banning its members from openly carrying weapons within 250 feet of the drop box and from videotaping, following or photographing voters within 75 feet.
So far, Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, has sent 18 referrals of voter intimidation to law enforcement authorities. In the complaints, which were heavily redacted, voters described being watched, photographed with long-lens cameras and having their license plates recorded. Some, including one filed on Thursday from a voter in Phoenix’s Central City neighborhood, came after the judge’s order had been filed.
“I have never been more intimidated in my life trying to vote and standing only three feet from the box,” the complaint said, according to records released by the secretary of state. The voter continued: “Do I need to worry about my family being killed now if the results are not what they wanted?”
Led by Mr. Trump, Republican candidates and right-wing media figures have stoked fears about “election integrity.” Although there is no evidence of widespread fraud in elections, they led the charge for new laws that tighten voting rules and, as their talking point goes, make it “harder to cheat.”
Republican candidates and party officials have also encouraged their voters to cast ballots in person on Election Day, reflecting two years of legal arguments and talk claiming that Democrats used expanded access to absentee voting in 2020 to illegitimately win the election. When candidates at a rally headlined by Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, on Thursday night called on the crowd to vote in person, they were met with cheers.
“I was an absentee, mail-in voter for years,” said Janelle Black, a homemaker from Phoenix who attended the Lake rally. But Ms. Black said that since the 2020 election, which she believed was stolen, she did not trust Ms. Hobbs, who is both the secretary of state and a Democratic candidate for governor, to oversee the process. “I want to vote ‘day of,’” she said, “so it’s counted right there. I don’t want to take any chances.”
In some states, Republicans’ skepticism about mail ballots may help re-create a “red mirage,” where the votes cast on Election Day are reported first and heavily favor Republicans, while mail-in ballots, which lean Democratic, come in later. Mr. Trump used the trend to falsely suggest that Democrats rigged the results two years ago.
But election denial has spread even to places Mr. Trump won handily. In Northern California’s mostly rural Shasta County, where he carried two-thirds of the vote in 2020, tensions over elections and other issues have been rising for months. Local activists have demanded a halt to early voting, pushed to count ballots by hand and sought to require voter ID at polling places — none of which are legal in the state.
In the face of public protest, the county’s chief executive resigned, its health officer quit and the health board publicly denounced the state’s vaccine mandates.
Cathy Darling Allen, the Shasta County clerk and registrar of voters, said she has familiar Election Day worries: A forecast for as much as 10 inches of snow on Sunday night could prevent some of the 180,000 voters in her mountainous county from getting to the polls.
But she’s also burdened by concerns about the potential for violence and has worked with local authorities to devise multiple contingency plans.
“I never in my dreams thought I’d be coming up with a plan for what to do if I get shot, but here we are,” said Ms. Darling Allen.
In some states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, voting rights and civil rights groups have trained volunteers in methods of de-escalation, stationing them around polling places and setting up hotlines to respond to issues. In Ohio, for example, a coalition specifically enlisted religious leaders from multiple denominations for the task.
In Georgia, a state with a long history of intimidation and tension at the polls, some community leaders expressed similar unease, amid rising threats of political violence.
“I will admit I’m apprehensive about Election Day because you never know what some people will do,” said Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, who oversees more than 150 A.M.E. churches in Georgia. “And I look at Arizona, people dressed in these outfits, it can be intimidating.”
More than 65,000 voters in Georgia have had their registrations challenged by fellow citizens, under procedures laid out in a new voting law. Even though most of the challenges have been thrown out, it has unsettled some Georgia voters, and tossed some off the rolls. Barbara Helm, a homeless woman in Forsyth County, Ga., was forced to vote on a provisional ballot because her registration had been removed during one of the mass challenges brought by Republican voters. Her dilemma was first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But Bishop Jackson was also buoyed by surging turnout in the state, and pointed to efforts of his church and many other voting rights organizations to ensure voters were prepared for the midterms.
“There’s apprehension but they’re not afraid,” Bishop Jackson said. “Our people are prepared, and we’re prepared to vote.”
Ken Bensinger and Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.