Mon, 22 Apr 2019

WASHINGTON - Polls have closed in eight U.S. states, as Americans cast ballots in one of the most bitterly fought midterm congressional elections in years, a vote that will decide who controls the Congress for at least the next two years.

The November 6 vote for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the Senate's 100 seats will also heavily influence the next two years of Donald Trump's presidency.

There were scattered reports of problems in some places around the country, including long lines and malfunctioning computer scanners. Still, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters said there was no indication of "compromise to our nation's election infrastructure."

With Republicans holding a 23-seat majority in the House of Representatives -- the lower house of Congress -- and controlling the upper house -- the Senate -- by just a single seat, many polls are predicting that Democrats have a strong chance to take control of at least the House.

As of 7 p.m. EST, polls had closed in eight states, including Florida, Virginia, Indiana, Georgia, and Kentucky. Several of Virginia's congressional districts were seen as bellwether races that would give indications whether Democrats or Republicans would take the upper hand in the House.

Florida, meanwhile, is one of the most populated states, with 27 congressional districts and its race for governor has been particularly hard fought. Indiana is the site of a key Senate battle.

A national poll released November 4 by the Washington Post and ABC News showed that registered voters prefer Democratic candidates for the House 50 percent to 43 percent over Republicans. In some individual races, however, polls showed many candidates were statistically tied.

U.S. midterm elections usually draw fewer voters to the polls, but officials and U.S. media said early signs indicated heavier-than-usual turnout.

A coalition of some 100 groups monitoring polling irregularities said problems with voting machines had been reported in at least 12 states during the day.

Among the election day difficulties, long lines and defective voting machines were reported in the state of Georgia, site of a hotly contested battle for the governor's post.

In addition to Congress, many states are choosing governors, and new members of state legislatures. Some states also were holding referendums on specific issues such as taxes, animal cruelty, legalizing marijuana, or increasing the minimum wage.

In the Georgian city of Snellville, technical difficulties with voting machines forced dozens of people to wait in line for more than four hours to vote, with many laying on the floor until their turn to cast a ballot. In New York City, broken ballot scanners caused delays at several locations. Lines at one precinct on Manhattan's Upper West Side stretched down the street and around a school gymnasium.

A judge in Porter County, Indiana, ordered 12 polling places in the region to stay open late after voting didn't start as scheduled. The cities of Houston, Sarasota, Florida; and Phoenix, Arizona, were among other cities reporting confusion at polling stations.

Even before polling precincts opened, a surge in early voting in many states highlighted how electrified the U.S. voters are about a range of issues -- first and foremost, Trump's presidency.

For his part, Trump and his wife Melania voted in New York State-their primary residency-- via absentee ballot several weeks ago, according to the White House.

The growth in early voting in many U.S. states means that nearly 38.5 million people had already cast ballots by November 6, according to data compiled by University of Florida professor Michael McDonald. At least 44 states had exceeded their total number of early votes cast from in the last midterm election, in 2014.

By all accounts, the election campaign has been rancorous (eds: bitter) to a degree not seen in years. On the one hand, the U.S. economy is surging in strength, with a major jobs report released November 2 putting the unemployment rate at 3.7 percent.

The economy grew at a 3.5 percent annual rate in the third quarter, according to federal data, fueled in part by the major tax cut passed by congressional Republicans last year.

Normally, that would put the president and his party in a strong position for congressional elections, which occur every two years and are all called midterms when they fall at the midway point of a president's four-year term, like this year.

But Trump's hard-line approach to policy-making and social issues has dented the ability of Republicans to claim full credit for the strong economy.

If Democrats take control of the House, most observers expect lawmakers to open major investigations, looking into matters such as the U.S. intelligence conclusions that Russia interfered in the 2016 election campaign and whether Trump associates tried to conspire with Russian officials.

On the eve of Election Day, senior U.S. security and intelligence officials issued a joint statement saying that so far 'we have no indication of compromise of our nation's election infrastructure that would prevent voting, change vote counts, or disrupt the ability to tally votes.'

'But Americans should be aware that foreign actors - and Russia in particular - continue to try to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions through actions intended to sow discord,' the November 5 statement from DHS chief Nielsen, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and FBI Director Christopher Wray said.

If they take control of the House, Democrats are also expected to focus on the ethical problems some of Trump's Cabinet members have faced, meaning the final two years of Trump's first term as president would likely be shadowed by a stream of bad news.

If Republicans maintain control of the House, Trump is expected to push forward on legislation including more tax cuts, efforts to shrink the federal government, cutting regulations, and other things.

The midterm campaign has been roiled by a wave of attempted mail bombings, allegedly committed by a Florida man who regularly posted vitriolic statements on social media, and who appeared to be a die-hard Trump supporter. A shooting massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 people on October 27 has also darkened the national mood; the gunman allegedly shouted anti-Semitic slurs as he opened fire.

Instead of highlighting the strong economy, Trump's political organization, which is separate from the Republican party, has focused on the question of immigration, an issue that Trump himself campaigned on during in 2016.

Like most presidents, Trump has an organization, outside of the U.S. government, that is set up to solicit donations and put out campaign materials on behalf of Trump or those he is supporting.

Mike Eckel

Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington. FOLLOW Subscribe via RSS

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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