(THIS STORY HAS BEEN UPDATED.)
Shadowed by an historic pandemic, economic uncertainty and deep political divisions, the United States concluded a landmark election on Tuesday that will determine whether President Donald Trump extends his chaotic presidency another four years or former Vice President Joe Biden’s appeals for a dramatic course reversal put him in the White House in January.
America awoke Wednesday to a narrow Biden lead in Electoral College votes, but also evidence of surprising strength for Trump despite pre-election predictions among many pollsters of a Democratic repudiation.
The ballot-counting in the presidential race extended throughout the night and into Wednesday, with final results not likely to be known for a couple of days.
Returns showed very close contests in the key battleground states of Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. At midday Wednesday, Georgia and North Carolina, as well as Maine, remained in the mix as well.
Trump appeared to successfully defend his 2016 victories in key states including Florida, Ohio and Texas.
On the flip side, Biden led in Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all with early votes still being tabulated that are expected to lean heavily toward the Democrat.
Speaking to supporters in Wilmington in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Biden exuded optimism and counseled patience.
“We feel good about where we are,” Biden said. “We believe we’re on track to win this election…We’re going to have to be patient until the hard work of counting votes is finished.”
By contrast, Trump a short time later falsely claimed he had won the election and that it was being taken from him.
Appearing in the White House East Room in front of his cheering backers, the president said: “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country…Frankly, we did win this election. We did win this election. So our goal now is to ensure the integrity for the good of this nation.”
Numerous news organizations pointed out that Trump was lying because many states were then – and still are – counting ballots.
Art Hendrix, a lifelong Republican from York, Pennsylvania, said Tuesday he was “not voting for Donald Trump in any circumstances.” He did not vote for Trump in 2016 either.
“I have no appreciation at all for Donald Trump and how he’s handled the pandemic and how he has governed the country,” Hendrix said.
However, Nancy Wilson, a voter from Prince George’s County, Maryland, — an especially Democratic strong-hold in a blue state — said she doesn’t fault Trump for his response to the pandemic because it came from another country.
“I’m normally a Democrat because I’m not rich,” Wilson said. But “the Lord put it in my heart to vote for Trump.” She supports the president because of increased employment and is happy she kept her job through the pandemic.
As the country continues to grapple with the pandemic, voters have used various methods to cast their ballots in a record voter turnout.
“We saw record-breaking early (voting) and I think what we saw was people took advantage of early voting and absentee balloting at unprecedented levels,” said Sarah Walker, an election security advocate and acting director of state and federal affairs at the non-partisan Secure Democracy. “We saw this happen amidst an unprecedented pandemic, and this is truly astonishing.”
More than 100 million people voted early in the United States and an overwhelming number, nearly 65%, voted via mail-in ballots, according to the University of Florida’s United States Elections Project.
Early-voting totals surpassed the entire 2016 turnout in several states, including Texas, Hawaii, Montana and Washington.
In Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon, early votes reached nearly 90% of the states’ total votes in the last presidential election.
Early voting numbers in Maryland have also nearly surpassed the total number of votes in the state from 2016.
In an unprecedented turnout, more than 2.2 million people voted early in Maryland.
While “in-person numbers are still relatively high given the level of early voting,” Walker said he isn’t sure if they’re “reaching the numbers that many anticipated.”
In an attempt to sway voters, candidates spent their final days traversing the country to reach undecided voters in swing states.
Both candidates have spent a considerable amount of time in Pennsylvania as the state’s 20 Electoral College votes could prove key to winning the White House.
Trump spent the majority of his final campaigning days in the state as he hosted a number of rallies.
In his last rally, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the president ran through an oft-repeated list of grievances against his “fake impeachment” and “fake investigations” that dogged his tumultuous presidency. He blamed the raging pandemic on the “China plague” and insisted he was still a target of the “deep state.”
“I don’t want to act like a complainer, but it’s a totally rigged deal,” Trump told a largely unmasked crowd.
Biden spent Monday campaigning in Pennsylvania and finished Election Day in his hometown of Scranton, where he pledged to restore “decency to the White House.”
At his boyhood home in a Scranton neighborhood, he scrawled on the living room wall: “From this house to the White House with the grace of God. Joe Biden 11-3-2020.”
After “four years of disaster (and) of…failed leadership,” Tom Small, 66, of York, Pennsylvania, said he was excited to possibly have a president from his state. He wore a “Biden for President” mask to cast his ballot in-person on Election Day.
“Thank God Donald Trump came along because now Pennsylvania doesn’t have the worst single president,” Small said, referring to President James Buchanan, who served as the 15th president and the only one to date from Pennsylvania. “Now we’ll have another president (from the state), Joe Biden, and hopefully that will be (better).”
The Biden campaign outspent the Trump campaign in the weeks leading up to Election Day. In Arizona — where Trump won 48.1% of the votes in 2016 — he was outspent by nearly $15 million, according to CBS News.
Democratic efforts to spread the battlefield into traditionally Republican states were symbolized by Sen. Kamala Harris’s visits to Georgia and Texas and former President Barack Obama’s appeals to voters in Georgia.
The weeks leading up to Election Day also saw predominantly GOP legal challenges over voting, with attempts from the state Republican parties to limit ballot drop-off locations in Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio; to prevent ballots received after Tuesday from being counted in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin; to discard drive-thru ballots in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston; and to install cameras to record ballot-counting process in Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas.
These attempts were blocked by several federal judges, and some cases wound up in the Supreme Court, which upheld the pattern of not making any changes so close to Election Day.
Caleb Jackson, a voting rights attorney for the Campaign Legal Center, told Capital News Service that he expects legal challenges to continue.
“I anticipate we will see more after the polls close, especially in the coming days as some states allow ballots that were postmarked (by Election Day) to be counted,” Jackson said. “People (will be) trying to toss out ballots if they weren’t the way they think they should have been counted.”
Along with the presidential race, Democrats and Republicans fought over control of the Senate, currently held by the GOP.
Democrats also looked poised to expand their hold on the House.