(AP) -- Final voting began Tuesday in a midterm election where voting itself has been in the spotlight after two years of false claims and conspiracy theories about how ballots are cast and counted.
Voters lined up at polls before dawn in several East Coast states, including New York and Virginia.
Since the last nationwide election two years ago, former President Donald Trump and his allies have succeeded in sowing wide distrust about voting by promoting false claims of widespread fraud. The effort has eroded public confidence in elections and democracy, led to restrictions on mail voting and new ID requirements in some GOP-led states and prompted death threats against election officials.
Election Day this year is marked by concerns about further harassment and the potential for disruptions at polling places and at election offices where ballots will be tallied. Election officials say they are prepared to handle any issues that arise, urging voters not to be deterred.
"This bipartisan, transparent process administered by election professionals across the country will be secure, it will be accurate and it will have integrity," said Matt Masterson, a former top election security official in the Trump administration, at a briefing organized by The Aspen Institute. "The best response for all of us is to get out and participate in it."
No major problems were reported during the early voting period. Even before the pandemic, many states had begun to shift away from a single day of voting to offer days or weeks of early, in-person voting and ballots sent through the mail.
Heading into Tuesday, nearly 44.5 million people across the country had already cast ballots.
Party affiliation seems to be an increasing factor in how and when people vote. Republican skepticism of mail voting has persisted amid the attacks by Trump and his allies. Some Republican activists and candidates have gone so far as to encourage voters who receive a mailed ballot to wait until the very last minute to turn it in, claiming it will somehow prevent Democrats from stealing the election.
There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in 2020. Exhaustive reviews in states contested by Trump all affirmed Biden's win, while dozens of judges, including ones appointed by Trump, dismissed numerous cases making unsubstantiated claims of wrongdoing.
Election officials have defended the system. They note the many checks in place to ensure only one vote per person is counted, the reviews that ensure machines accurately count ballots and the efforts to identify any fraud attempts.
"State and local election officials have contingency plans in place so voters can have confidence in our elections," state election officials said in a statement issued by the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors.
But the false claims have spread widely among Republicans, fueled by conspiracy theorists on social media and at events held across the country. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey from October found 45% of Republicans had little to no confidence that votes in the midterm elections will be counted accurately. And a majority of Republicans, 58%, still believe President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected -- though it's down slightly from 66% in July 2021.
Election officials acknowledge electronic voting systems can be vulnerable and have taken numerous steps to increase security since the 2016 election, when it was determined that Russia looked for vulnerabilities. Congress has sent nearly $900 million to states to boost their cybersecurity defenses, including hiring more IT staffers, replacing outdated systems and adding regular security testing.
Most voters also cast hand-marked paper ballots or use machines that produce a paper record of their votes. These are used after the election to check that machines used to count ballots work properly.
Ahead of the election, Republican and conservative groups recruited people to serve as poll watchers and to get hired as local poll workers. Fueled by the lies about the 2020 election, some people even stationed themselves near ballot drop boxes in Arizona while toting guns, wearing body armor and concealing their faces with masks. Just last week, a judge ordered such groups to keep at least 250 feet away.
Since the 2020 election, false claims have led to a wave of harassment and death threats targeting election officials and staff. That has prompted some to leave the profession altogether, a loss of experience that has added to the challenges of conducting a smooth election this year.
Election officials have promised they will not hesitate to contact law enforcement to protect voters and poll workers. A coalition of voting rights groups has volunteers available to assist any voters who run into problems on Election Day, staffing the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline.
Once polls close, results will start being released. Different rules and ballot deadlines will mean some states will be faster to report than others. Election officials in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan are not able to start processing mailed ballots until Election Day or a few days before, making extra work for local offices that could delay results. Other states, including Florida and Georgia, give local election offices weeks to get mailed ballots ready for counting, speeding the tallies.
"Results, as always, will take a while because Election Day is not results day," said Sylvia Albert, director of voting for the nonpartisan voter advocacy group, Common Cause.