WASHINGTON — With the casting of ballots underway, a midterm election already brimming with partisan rancor and laced with misinformation now faces a new set of challenges, some of them not seen in the nation’s recent political history.
This is the first election in which a substantial number of candidates for major offices are election deniers or conspiracy theorists. Whether and how defeated candidates and their supporters will accept their losses is a major unknown.
This is also the first election in which an army of private poll watchers, largely recruited by groups on the right wedded to the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen, is expected to try to gather evidence of fraud for later use in court battles and as fuel for protests. Whether the virtual absence of fraud at the polls will prove a deterrent is another unknown.
And this could be an election in which the outcome of many close races is likely to remain unknown for an extended time, should an expected cascade of lawsuits, recounts and other obstacles snarl the counting process. Whether delays will fuel the already poisonous mix of rumors and outright lies about the vote remains to be seen.
The thousands of officials who oversee the election have largely been confident that, despite obstacles, it would go well, in no small part because their preparations were as much a disaster-response exercise as a civics one. They have far fewer assurances about the tallying process that begins Tuesday evening.
“The post-election period could be one of uncertainty and anxiety and conflict, but that all depends on what happens on election night,” said Nate Persily, a Stanford University expert on the law of democracy and election procedures.
“If it’s close, and especially if the Senate hangs in the balance, you could easily see a serious conflict,” he added.
Already, legal battles over the counting of absentee ballots seem certain to erupt in states with close races, led by Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Courts in Wisconsin have failed to settle disputes over whether applications for mail ballots must be thrown out if voters’ addresses are incomplete, but still decipherable.
In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court has effectively left it up to county officials to decide whether mail ballots with missing or incorrect dates must be thrown out, even if they arrive in time.
In both cases, Republicans want disputed ballots to be tossed, while Democrats argue that they should be counted.
“If you cock your ear right, you can already hear the scribbling of attorneys writing their legal briefs as we speak,” said Forrest K. Lehman, the director of elections in Lycoming County, Pa., whose main city is Williamsport.
The new presence of partisan poll watchers adds a wild card to legal battles and other challenges to results, said Barry C. Burden, who directs the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Their mission, as outlined by some who recruited them, is to document the evidence of fraud that was totally absent from court challenges to the 2020 elections.
“They go in as skeptics, and they’re not professionally trained, so they’re looking for things that validate beliefs they already have,” Mr. Burden said. “I expect election observers are going to be watching ballot processing very closely, and if there are lawsuits, I would expect them to be at the center of them,” as well as at other challenges like recounts and audits.
It all will play out in an atmosphere where the false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election are now seen as established fact by many on the right.
“It’s all about the outcome, and creating this opening for delegitimizing the process when you lose,” said David J. Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
“The problem with this is it also incites anger, and potentially violence.”