On Election Day, finally, there was near-unanimity about one thing: 2020 is an ugly, mean bear, and Americans mean to do something about it.
In the ninth month of spending way too much time at home — when for many millions there was no real school, no church to go to, no work — people were determined to vote, which they did in unimaginable, perhaps unprecedented, numbers.
When the anxiously awaited day finally came, there was hope in Atlanta, where Raheem Nas, having concluded that "the state of our country is unacceptable," cast his ballot for Joe Biden. Nas, 40, said he acted for his 6-year-old son and out of his own belief that Biden could heal America's wounds and make it safe for a Black man like him to "change my damn tire on the freeway without getting killed."
There was fear in Hoover, Ala., where Shannon Zuniga, a 64-year-old catering company employee, said Biden's election would mean socialism, unrest, "total chaos." She voted to keep President Donald Trump in the White House because, she said, he would preserve religious freedom and because "he's a man of his word. He is not always careful of his words. But he loves this country."
There was humiliation in Kenosha, Wis., where the coronavirus had played havoc with Angela Van Dyke's life. She lost her job in architecture in California when the pandemic kneecapped the economy. Now she was back in her Wisconsin hometown, taking advantage of same-day voter registration, wearing a gray mask and braving the crowd because she couldn't trust her ballot to the mail system.
"I'm completely embarrassed over our political state," said Van Dyke, 36. She voted for Biden as the antidote to Trump's cavalier attitude toward the virus.
As the nation's unusually long and confusing election season ended Tuesday, with millions of votes pouring in by mail, in drop-boxes and in person, Americans — perhaps paradoxically — put their faith in the system. For all of this era's unparalleled mistrust — of government, of institutions, of each other — voting is an intrinsically hopeful act, a statement that things can get better and that the leader of the country matters.
There was no shortage of despair in this vote. There was even, for some, a nagging fear that the election would spin into a chaotic cascade of street violence and court battles. But in churches, schools, town halls, community centers and fire stations across the country, Americans also gathered with some belief, some aspiration, that as Abraham Lincoln told a divided nation in his first inaugural address, "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection."
In West Palm Beach, Fla., Stacy Savaria's motive was simple: Heal the divisions, bring people together, get the virus under control.
Her vote was more complicated. Her mail-in ballot sat on her dining room table for two weeks while she pondered. Registered as a Democrat, she said she leans Republican on most issues, especially abortion rights. A Black professional, Savaria, 43, recalls when the Republican Party recruited people like her into what was going to be a bigger tent.
"I'm not big into politics, but I'm big into morals," Savaria said. "Republicans used to get that right." She didn't vote for president in 2016; she disliked both Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
"The Republican Party is not what it used to be at all," she said, adding that she was appalled by Trump: "He mocks veterans. He laughs at people who have disabilities. He separated children from their families. Just everything."
Still, when a Democratic canvasser knocked on her door Sunday and nearly broke down sobbing, telling her the country would be lost if Trump won again, Savaria didn't buy it. "I seriously doubt that America would let that happen," she said.
That night, she thought it over. She couldn't vote for Trump, not "with all that's happening, with the divisiveness of the country, with how COVID was handled, with COVID actually being mocked," she said. She didn't like some of Biden's past statements about Black Americans, she said, but "he's admitted to them, he's apologized for them, and there is forgiveness after sin."
"So I was like, what if I was the last vote that could have voted in a better system? I weighed the possibilities. It was difficult."
She opened her ballot and filled in the bubble for Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris.
"I'm one vote," she said. "Maybe one vote really does matter. I hope my voice is heard and all this fiasco comes to an end."
Millions of Americans could not imagine such doubt. They knew their decision months, even years ago. Lincoln, they believed, was too much the idealist when he insisted that "the mystic chords of memory" would hold the country together, that Americans who were ready to go to war against one another would unite once more "when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
These voters knew there must be no compromise with the other side. The other side, they said, is evil. Their side is right.
As the sun rose Tuesday in Cornelius, N.C., 20 miles north of Charlotte, Phyllis Driscoll was among the first voters in line at the town hall. Driscoll needed to be there for Trump because, she said, God had sent him to lead America.
Over the years, Driscoll, who is 62 and Black, has voted for Democrats and Republicans. She supported Barack Obama and George W. Bush. But she chose Trump in 2016 and again Tuesday because "God is using him to put things back in order" through his support for Israel and his withdrawal from the World Health Organization. Not that Trump was flawless; she said he could have done more sooner to combat the pandemic. But she forgave him that: "God is molding and shaping him," she said.
Jamal Walker, a 58-year-old Black man in west Philadelphia, could not forgive the president's handling of the virus. Walker and his wife fell ill with COVID-19 in April. He missed 21 days of work, and "fought every night not to go to the hospital."
Hearing Trump downplay the virus "was disheartening," he said. "He is cold and callous. So many parents lost their children, and children lost their parents. It's no joke."
Walker voted for Biden and remained nervous about whether his vote would even be counted amid all the talk about vote suppression, mail ballots not delivered, legal battles to challenge votes.
"It feels very undemocratic. I'm afraid for our country," he said. "It feels like we're from a Third World country."
The travails of this year — the virus, the resulting economic collapse, the protests and violence that followed the killing of George Floyd — and the prospect of Trump jockeying for position and power in the interregnum between Election Day and Inauguration Day combined to make this election a "significant source of stress" to more than two-thirds of Americans, according to a recent Harris Poll.
With emotions spiking, Americans learned more about the voting system this fall than most people ever cared to know. They learned about a crazy-quilt of laws and traditions in which the 50 states and the District of Columbia take wildly different approaches to mail voting, counting and settling disputes after the election.
With the coronavirus spreading at its fastest rate yet, many votes were cast before Election Day. Nearly 70 % of the total number of votes counted in the 2016 election had already been cast before Tuesday. The centuries-old tradition of gathering with neighbors to choose candidates was replaced by isolated decisions sent into the mail stream, or dropped in special boxes.
People did come together to vote in person, but in many places they were socially distanced, kept apart — as they are in politics — from each other to stay healthy.