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Short lines and calm prevail at U.S. polls early on Election Day

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Wearing face masks and standing spaced apart, Americans waited at polling stations early on Tuesday to choose a president on an Election Day marked so far by orderliness and short lines, even as major cities braced for potential unrest.

The masks and boarded-up stores in many city centers were reminders of two of the issues shaping 2020’s polarizing elections, with COVID-19 still ravaging parts of the country after a summer of sometimes violence-marred protests against police brutality and racism.

Poll workers guessed the short lines in many places were due to an unprecedented wave of early voting, with more than 90 million ballots cast before Election Day.

In Atlanta, Georgia, about a dozen voters were lined up before sunrise at the Piedmont Park Conservancy. First in line was Ginnie House, shivering in the cold, waiting to cast a vote for the Democratic candidate Joe Biden, a former vice president seeking to replace President Donald Trump, a Republican, in the White House.

“I lost my absentee ballot and I’m not going to miss this vote,” said House, a 22-year-old actor and creative writing student, who had flown back to Atlanta from New York just for this purpose. Of Trump, she said: “He’s dividing our country.”

In Hialeah, a predominantly Cuban-American suburb of Miami, Marcos Antonio Valero, 62, was voting for Trump, as he had done in 2016. He said he took the day off from his job as a construction worker to cast his ballot in person because he did not trust voting by mail.

He made no prediction as to which way Florida, a closely fought battleground state, would tip.

“It’s a secret, a mystery,” he said. “No one knows how it’s going to end until we all know.”

At a polling station in Houston, Texas, Andy Valadez was blowing a shofar wrapped in a U.S. flag. A shofar is a trumpet used in Jewish and some Christian ceremonies and, in this instance, as a way to pray for a Trump victory, according to Valadez.

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“We want to pray for a fair election,” the 55-year-old marketing executive said. “We believe in America and want everyone to have a safe voting experience.”

TENSIONS FROM TIMES SQUARE TO TEXAS

The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups said they were watching closely for signs of voter intimidation, and the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said it would deploy staff to 18 states.

In New York City, the Empire State Building, Macy’s department store, and the skyscraper that houses the Trump-favored Fox News channel were among buildings that were boarded up.

On Rodeo Drive, one of the most expensive shopping streets in California’s Beverly Hills, staff had stripped the display windows at Tiffany & Co. and Van Cleef & Arpels of their jewels.

“Hopefully this is all for nothing,” Kathy Gohari, vice president of the Rodeo Drive Committee, said on Monday as she watched workers nail plywood over luxury storefronts.

Tensions have flared up around the country in the run-up to Election Day.

Trump supporters driving pick-up trucks down a Texas highway surrounded a bus filled with Biden campaign staff last week. In North Carolina over the weekend, police pepper-sprayed a group of mostly Democrats marching to polling stations. And members of an anti-government militia group have been charged in an alleged plot to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan.

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The fondness among some Trump supporters of forming honking, traffic-jamming caravans of vehicles has spread to New York and beyond, and more such events are planned for later on Tuesday. Some election security experts worry the caravans could break laws, intimidate voters or spiral into violent confrontations.

Soon after the Hialeah polling station in Miami opened, a couple of large gray pick-up trucks decorated with Trump flags turned into the parking lot, rolled through it slowly and left.

At a polling station at a library in Tampa, Florida, Biden supporters had set up a marquee with signs for both their candidate and for Black Lives Matter, the slogan-turned-movement around which protesters massed in cities across the United States this year.

After emerging, Eric Weaver, 44, said he had voted for Biden because he believed that Trump had made racists in America more brazen.

“He’s enticing these hate groups to think they’ve got a place in society,” said Weaver, a Black collections manager. “Now they feel like they can be out in public and upfront with their racism.”

Even once votes are cast, some worry about a protracted ballot count, making the country wait for days or more before a clear winner emerges if the race is close.

As the United States suffers through the deadliest coronavirus outbreak on the planet, many states had expanded early voting to reduce contagion-spreading crowds at polling stations. Early mail-in ballots are thought to skew more Democrat in some places, but many states will not finish counting them until after Election Day.

Trump, whose office holds no powers over state-controlled vote-tallying, has said he thinks states should simply stop counting legal ballots once Tuesday has passed.

This frustrated Nick Edwards, a 26-year-old Republican and lifelong conservative in Detroit, who decided to split his ticket: Biden for president, and then Republicans in Tuesday’s congressional and state races.

“Any disbelief in our system has been put into the public’s view by Trump,” he said after voting. “He’s been illegitimizing the election since last year, saying that mail-in ballots are fraudulent.”

Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Nathan Layne in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, Ernest Scheyder in Houston and Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Michael Martina in Detroit; Simon Lewis in Tampa, Florida; Maria Caspani in New York; Gabriella Borter in Toledo, Ohio; Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Lucy Nicholson in Beverly Hills, California; Sarah Lynch in Washington; Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Patricia Zengerle in Raleigh, North Carolina; Writing by Jonathan Allen and Frank McGurty; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Rosalba O’Brien

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