Elections are meant to resolve arguments. This one inflamed them.
Weeks after the votes have been counted and the winners declared, many Americans remain angry, defiant and despairing. Millions now harbor new grievances borne of President Donald Trump's baseless claims of election fraud. Many Democrats are saddened by results that revealed the opposition to be far more powerful than they imagined.
And in both groups there are those grappling with larger, more disquieting realizations. The foundations of the American experiment have been shaken — by partisan rancor, disinformation, a president's assault on democracy and a deadly coronavirus pandemic. There is a sense of loss.
It burdens even the winners.
In North Carolina, a soon-to-be state lawmaker whose victory made history says he is struck by how little feels changed. In Michigan, a suburban woman found her feminism in the Trump era only to see her family torn by the election outcome.
In a Pennsylvania town, the simple things still feel fraught. Plans for a small-town Christmas market spiraled into a bruising fight over public health and politics.
"What is holding our country together?" wonders Charisse Davis, a school board member in the Atlanta suburbs, where the election has not ended. A pair of Senate runoffs on Jan. 5 will decide which party controls the U.S. Senate.
Davis may get her answer soon. A vaccine has brought hope and a chance for a nation to prove it can do big things again. New leadership in Washington may change the tone.
But now, at the end of 2020, many Americans say the experiences of the past four year have made them look at their neighbors — and their country — in a different light.
It's been a tumultuous few months for Ricky Hurtado. The 32-year-old son of Salvadoran immigrants won a seat in the North Carolina state legislature as a Democrat representing a suburban slice of Alamance County.
Hurtado's wife, Yazmin Garcia, earned her U.S. citizenship six days before the election. The couple drove directly from the immigration office where she became a citizen to the nearest early voting site, so she could register on the spot and cast a ballot for her husband.
But Hurtado still can't shake the feeling that, despite all this, little changed. He'd hoped to be part of a Democratic wave that took back his state legislature, hold seats on the state Supreme Court and win them in the U.S. Senate. Instead, Democrats fell short in all of those efforts.
Trump won North Carolina just as he did in 2016.
"It feels like we haven't moved in any given direction," Hurtado said.
Hurtado is struggling to understand how there was a shift among Latinos toward Trump in the election. The president's strong performance with Cuban Americans in South Florida narrowed the traditional Democratic edge in Miami-Dade County and helped put Florida in Trump's column. In Texas, Trump won tens of thousands of new supporters in predominantly Mexican American communities along the border.
"It shows you, your identities are complex," he said.
In the Pennsylvania college town of Slippery Rock, population 3,600, the annual Christmas market was supposed to be the bright spot in a dismal year.
Republican Mayor Jondavid Longo donated his salary — $88 a month after taxes — to help pay for the market that drew 25 vendors and 500 people. He hoped the outdoor event would bring holiday cheer and a much needed injection of cash to the town's struggling businesses. Perhaps, he figured, a cozy event would also drown out any bitter feelings about the presidential election and the pandemic.
Trump won Butler County handily in November, evidence of his campaign to supercharge turnout in rural, conservative places as he cedes ground in the cities and suburbs. It wasn't enough to win Pennsylvania, which helped seal the victory of President-elect Joe Biden
But neither politics nor the pandemic could be escaped.
Things began to devolve on Twitter. Photos surfaced showing few people in masks, leading to criticism that the event might have spread the coronavirus, which has grown in the rural county's population since the Nov. 3 election.
"We were outside so I thought things were reasonable," Longo said. "COVID was only an issue for individuals who were trying to stoke the flames of fear and discontent."
In Cobb County, Georgia, Davis popped a bottle of champagne, despite a nagging sense of sadness, then packed the family into the car to head into downtown Atlanta and join thousands dancing in the street.
She decided to just enjoy victory on the Saturday that news organizations called the presidential race for Biden.
"We'll go back to worrying about humanity tomorrow," she said to her family as they climbed in the car. And then tomorrow arrived, and the worry roared back.
Davis, who serves on the school board in suburban Cobb County, was part of a wave of Black women elected to public office in recent years. Women like her led the charge that ushered Biden to an unlikely victory in Georgia.
Trump immediately began sowing doubts about the vote, tossing out specious claims of fraud. The efforts to toss out votes came in heavily Black cities, which to Davis represents an ugly history of trying to repress Black voices. Tens of millions of Americans — 36% of Republicans in a recent Fox News poll — now believe the claims that the election was rigged and he was the rightful winner.
Pamela Allen, 72, worked as a poll watcher in Pasco County, Florida and saw no problems on Election Day. But the Trump supporter still believes the election was fraudulent.
"I think the election was totally paid for and rigged by the Democrats," said the retiree.
In suburban Michigan, a coalition of suburban women achieved what they set out to do — help evict Trump from the White House. But Lori Goldman, in Oakland County, Michigan, who runs the group Fems for Dems, can't shake the sense that their mission now is more critical than it's ever been.
"We got rid of this blight, this cancer," said Goldman, 61. "We cut him out. But we know that cancer has spread, it's spread to soft tissue, other organs. And now we have to save the rest of the body."
Trump called people like her the "suburban housewives of America," and tried to appeal to them by spreading fear about Black Lives Matter protesters, crime and low-income housing. Still, Biden won 54% of suburban voters, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate.
Goldman can't understand why 74 million Americans voted for Trump. She went on national television and said she was ashamed that most of her own relatives were among them. Now some of her siblings don't want to talk to her anymore.
To her, this is a microcosm of one of the greatest challenges this country has faced: that tribalized politics has pitted people against each other in a way far more profound than ever before. It is no longer Republicans versus Democrats. It has splintered families and friends.
She weeps when she talks about the rift.
Riccardi reported from Denver; Lush from Tampa, Florida; Galofaro from Louisville; and Boak from Baltimore.