PHOENIX: In downtown Portland, Oregon, they shouted, “Count every vote!” At the Detroit convention center, they urged those tallying ballots to stop. And outside a Philadelphia vote-counting site, they said they just wanted to watch.
In a year defined by protests — for women’s rights and Black lives, against coronavirus lockdowns and police brutality — the presidential election brought even more demonstrators to the streets across America this week as days passed without a clear winner.
As former Vice President Joe Biden appeared to gain ground over President Donald Trump in the race to reach 270 electoral votes, protests broke out in hotly contested areas including Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Phoenix, where demonstrators said they were convinced the election was being stolen — a baseless claim that has circulated fiercely on social media, including on Trump’s Twitter feed.
Protests also took place in areas where the results were settled, like New York, Portland, Washington and Miami, where the organizers — Latino Republican groups — offered a warning on a Facebook page called Stop the Steal: “They’re trying to steal this election from the President Donald J. Trump and we’re not going to let it happen.”
While sometimes tense — in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, the registrar said he had requested extra security at the election headquarters — the protests attracted a modest turnout and by Thursday evening had led to no violent episodes.
But the effort may be just ramping up: The Stop the Steal Facebook page, a public group started by Trump supporters, mushroomed to more than 360,000 members within hours before it was shut down by Facebook. It had been teeming with conspiracy theories and demands to halt the vote-counting process.
Trump has long been laying the groundwork for doubts about the election results, saying without evidence that mail-in ballots were fraudulent and that the election would be rigged. Several protesters spoke of “illegal votes” and said they simply didn’t believe that Biden could have won in their state.
Republicans have complained that observers have been kept too far from counters to inspect ballots and ensure accuracy. In Philadelphia, Trump surrogates won a minor victory when a state appellate court ordered that observers be allowed to watch from 6 feet away instead of the previous 20 feet at the main Philadelphia canvassing area. Counterprotesters outside danced and wore shirts that said “Count Every Vote.”
In Atlanta, some 60 people gathered downtown with signs that read “No cheating” and “Four more years.” Drivers in cars passing by held their horns down in support and waved flags out of their windows.
“We want every legal vote to be counted,” said Chandler Crump, 16, a high school student from Atlanta. “I feel amazing being here. There’s a lot of patriotic proud American energy here.”
Simone Michaud, a stay-at-home mother from Marietta, an Atlanta suburb, said she was there to “represent women of color and females in general,” adding, “we have one of the best presidents.”
In Phoenix, about 50 protesters hoisted Trump signs and chanted “Stop the steal” outside City Hall. Several in the crowd were openly carrying rifles and handguns as police officers looked on.
“I’m here to tell the left there’s no way in hell they’re taking my guns,” said Josh Dawl, 35, who had both a .22-caliber rifle and a Winchester Model 1894 rifle. “Trump supports our constitutional rights. Biden does not.”
The protest in Phoenix on Thursday came as election officials scrambled to finish counting ballots. It followed a demonstration Wednesday night that was convened by Mike Cernovich, a far-right blogger and YouTube personality. At that protest, armed right-wing demonstrators repeatedly threatened journalists, to the point where sheriff’s deputies moved television crews inside the Maricopa County Elections Center.
On Thursday, Dale Williams, 70, a retired real estate broker, said he showed up to voice opposition to what he described as a Democratic attempt to steal the election, a claim that is not supported by facts.
“I absolutely believe Donald Trump won Arizona and won the country,” said Williams, who was carrying a concealed handgun that he brandished to a reporter. “We cannot let Democrats get away with fraud.”
Outside the convention center in Detroit, where absentee ballots were being counted, a lone Black Lives Matter protester took a knee in the street, blocking an SUV that was decked out in Trump flags and towing a human-sized Statue of Liberty, with a sign that said, “Build the wall.”
The kneeler, Angelo Austin, who wore a mask that said “Detroit,” exchanged heated words with the demonstrators and blocked the SUV until the police asked him to move.
“We’re still fighting to breathe,” he said, yelling at the group while some Trump supporters called him racist and raised their voices, telling him: “It’s not about race.”
Austin, who is Black, scoffed. “My grandparents helped build this city,” he said, adding that most of the people who showed up to contest the votes were from outside of Detroit.
Many at the rally said that as they watched the votes come in from Detroit on Wednesday — helping flip the state of Michigan to Biden — they increasingly thought election fraud had been committed.
“The MAGA army is not going to let our vote, democracy, be stolen,” said Mark Conway, 61, who had driven from Macomb County on Wednesday after hearing on the radio that Republican poll watchers were needed.
He stayed at the center for several hours before leaving and returning with his son, only to be told that he could not re-enter. “They said that because of COVID, the capacity was reached,” he said. Entry was “temporarily frozen” with more than 550 election challengers, including 225 Republicans, already inside the center, a city official said.
Conway remained outside until about 9 p.m. Wednesday. After dark, the challengers demanded that the poll workers stop counting the votes, and sporadic chants of “Let us in” broke out.
Conway returned Thursday morning to continue to support Trump. “We want every legal vote counted, and I believe that he got more legal votes than anybody has ever gotten,” Conway said, adding that the shift in Biden’s favor overnight, as more votes were counted, wasn’t “credible.”
“The polls were fake, the news was fake, the votes are fake, and the candidate is fake,” he said.
Becky De Nooy came to the rally from Grand Rapids with her daughter, Emma, and said she, too, was distrustful of what she viewed as a surge of ballots suddenly showing up for Democrats.
“That should be suggesting that there’s something amiss,” De Nooy, 49, said. Her daughter added: “Not having a fair election, we cease to be a democratic republic.”
Across the country, there were also people who took to the streets out of alarm for Trump’s claim of victory before the votes had been counted.
In Washington, people arrived at Black Lives Matter plaza near the White House to find newly installed concrete vehicle barriers, signaling that the city was preparing for larger crowds. But on Thursday, there seemed to be more members of the press gathered there than protesters.
Latisha Waters, 36, traveled from Albany, New York, hoping to celebrate a Biden win.
“We came out here in case they announced Biden, but it looks like they won’t,” she said. “I don’t know what to do. I’m anxious.”
Emily Smith, 31, traveled from Michigan.
“We just need to take the time we need to take to figure out who won the election,” she said. “Trump has shown he is not afraid to try and get away with anything.”
On Wednesday, dozens of marchers had gathered at Washington’s Union Station with signs saying “The people have spoken” and “You will not silence us.” The protest included calls for justice on broader issues including race, immigration and climate change.
Republican leaders appeared at some protests reviving oft-used claims of irregularities that have in the past been debunked or shown to be greatly exaggerated. Outside a nondescript warehouse in North Las Vegas where most of the uncounted votes in Clark County remain, they erected a podium in the street.
Broadcasting on a hastily announced livestream, the former Nevada attorney general, Adam Laxalt, said Republicans had filed a lawsuit after discovering evidence of dead people and out-of-state voters illegally casting ballots in Nevada — but he did not provide any specifics to support those claims.
“We’re asking the judge to, due to all of these irregularities, to stop the counting of improper votes,” he said.
Laxalt was joined by Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, and Ric Grenell, former acting director of national intelligence.
Dozens of flag-waving Trump supporters looked on, and trucks with Trump flags circled the block, some gunning their engines and honking their horns.
Grenell refused to answer questions, telling reporters, “Listen, you are here to take in information.” As reporters shouted questions, the speakers got into a van and drove away.