A Vote That Flew in the Face of Fear Itself

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Struggling through one of the most devastating years in the history of the United States, a year of strife and suffering and loss, the nation’s people responded with resolve on the first Tuesday of November. Together but apart, they voted.

Undaunted by a pandemic that worsens by the day, they showed up in the early-morning snow outside the clapboard town offices of Newbury, N.H. Formed a shivering line into a gymnasium in Tobyhanna, Pa. Waited their turn in an elementary school in Louisville, Ky.; a public-housing complex in Houston; a recreation center in Garden Grove, Calif.; a bowling alley in Mandan, N.D.

They provided final punctuation to the 100 million votes already cast through mail-in ballots and in-person early voting, the crest to a tidal wave of turnout. Many showed up at the polls wearing masks, the coronavirus accessory that has come to symbolize this annus horribilis.

By their numbers, they underscored the consequences of the 2020 election, one that would choose between starkly different paths for the future of a politically and racially divided Republic: between the visions of Donald J. Trump, the Republican incumbent, and Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic challenger.

Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

“I’ve been voting for over 30 years, and this is the first time I’ve had a knot in my stomach on Election Day,” Lisa Payton, 55, said as she waited to vote in midmorning outside a municipal building in Stroudsburg, in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.

She said she took off from her job as a legal assistant to vote for Mr. Biden, but would spend the rest of the day watching Netflix movies and hanging Christmas decorations, rather than watch the news as the country’s fate hung in the balance. Too nervous, she said.

She was not alone. Fear and anxiety abounded, as plywood was hammered into place over storefronts in cities across the country — Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles — all in anticipation of election-related mayhem that, for the most part, never materialized.

The election was a referendum on 2020, a year that began a decade ago, it seems, with the impeachment — though not conviction — of President Trump. A year that many would prefer simply to end, no matter that nearly two months remain.

Though not spelled out in ink, memories and realities shared the ballot with the two major presidential candidates. The wildfires altering the Western landscape and the hurricanes pummeling the Gulf Coast; the audacious rise of white supremacists and self-appointed militias; the ongoing fight over abortion and the lightning-quick confirmation of a Supreme Court justice; the angry but peaceful marches for racial justice; the protests that devolved into violence.

Looming over it all has been the pandemic, entirely nonpartisan in the toll it takes.

Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

The coronavirus — and the government’s failure to contain it — has led to more than 230,000 American deaths, and the head of Mr. Trump’s own response effort warned this week of an even more deadly phase approaching. The pandemic has upended the economy, forced countless businesses to close, sent millions into unemployment and poverty.

Beyond those who, fearing infection, chose to vote by mail, many who cast a ballot on Election Day experienced firsthand the completeness with which the virus has altered everyday American life. Face masks were, if not mandatory, at least expected, and poll workers sometimes attended to the underpinnings of a democratic government behind transparent protective shields.

But the pandemic did not suppress the vote. If anything, the virus — and how it has been handled — helped to energize a day in which a simple ballot granted momentary power to those who have felt powerless against the onslaught of 2020, a year that has exposed national rifts in the starkest relief.

The fault line between visions for America could be found within 20 miles along the Shenango River in western Pennsylvania. At a polling center in a volunteer firehouse in Greenville, part of once-blue, now-red Mercer County, the vibe was decidedly Republican. “Trump Country,” asserted a campaign volunteer as he handed out sample ballots from a lawn chair.

Gareth Stell, 24, an oil worker in overalls, stopped to talk after voting in his first presidential election. He said he wanted elected officials who understood where he comes from, a place that does not embrace ambitious controls on guns and the environment.

Credit…Sharon Chischilly for The New York Times

“I live in small-town America,” said Mr. Stell, who is white. “We hunt, we fish, we own guns. That’s just what it comes down to.”

Less than 20 miles down the Shenango, the steel-mill town of Farrell offers a panorama of rusted smokestacks and weather-aged union halls — what, in the accepted stereotype, would also now be called Trump Country.

It is not. Farrell swings Democratic, and nearly half its 5,000 residents are Black. And while Mr. Stell up in Greenville preferred the status quo, Carminal Craig of Farrell demanded change.

Mr. Craig, 54, had just voted for Mr. Biden at the Prince of Peace Center, a social service agency transformed into a polling center. He said he came from a mill family, but the mill life was gone — “The old school is done” — and things needed to be rethought.

“Change needs to come at the White House, the state, the local government,” Mr. Craig said. “Everyone needs to change.”

Change was the operative word elsewhere.

In Minneapolis, Cynthia Robertson snapped photographs of the flowers and murals at the sun-dappled memorial established in honor of George Floyd, the unarmed Black man who died in May after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes. His death, recorded in excruciating videos, became a touchstone event in 2020, sparking nationwide protest marches and deeper examinations of the country’s history of racism.

Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

Ms. Robertson, 46, who is Black and the mother of teenagers, pointed to murals depicting other Black people killed at the hands of police, including one of Breonna Taylor, 26, killed in a botched police raid in Louisville, Ky., in March. As she stood at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, where Mr. Floyd died, tears welled behind her bedazzle-framed sunglasses.

“This could be my son; this could be my daughter,” she said. And this was why she had decided to vote for the first time in her life — for Mr. Biden. “Look around us,” Ms. Robertson said. “This is the reason.”

The police shooting of another Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wis., in late August sparked violent demonstrations, including one in which two people were shot dead on a downtown street. The police have charged Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager who came from Illinois to patrol the streets with a military-style semiautomatic rifle; he has since become the conservative personification of self-defense and the right to bear arms.

On Election Day, nearly three months later, the case of Mr. Rittenhouse — along with the fires, looting and protests — continued to be felt in Kenosha, a city of 100,000. Charred vehicles still sit in parking lots; businesses, while open, are still boarded up with plywood.

Miranda Schlitz, 45, who works as a server at a drive-in restaurant called Big Star, recalled that when Kenosha’s downtown was in the throes of unrest and destruction, she was so concerned for her family’s safety that she went to stay with her sister in a neighboring city.

“I was literally afraid in my home,” said Ms. Schlitz, who is white. She echoed one of Mr. Trump’s often-tweeted campaign themes. “We need law and order.”

Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times 

“The riots — that’s when my decision was final,” Ms. Schlitz said. Her decision: a vote cast for Donald Trump.

If unrest had transformed downtown Kenosha, then the coronavirus had transformed the country — a reality on display as people exercised their sacred right to vote. Voters approaching the Kenosha Bible Church first passed a hand-washing station and then a kiosk offering free masks, wipes and sanitizer — all before entering a gym where tables were spaced at least 15 feet apart. Meanwhile, in Oakland, Calif., an outdoor voting system included masked workers using salad tongs to take ballots.

At a time when the deadly coronavirus has been framed by some as overblown — a time when the president has suggested that doctors benefit financially from the pandemic — the outcome of the election took precedent. In Milwaukee, at the Aurora Sinai Medical Center, one of many hospitals being tested by a spiking number of Covid-19 patients, a nurse named Karina Brown said that hospital workers and patients alike were checking their cellphones and “fancy watches” for updates throughout the day.

She was doing the same. “We want the coronavirus to slow down and stop — and I think that’s why this election is so important to us,” Ms. Brown said. “Anxious is an understatement.”

The anxiety extended beyond concerns about health to concerns about employment; about feeding families and paying bills.

In Las Vegas, where the pandemic has cleaned out the casinos, more than half of the 600,000 members of the powerful, immigrant-heavy Culinary Workers Union are out of work — and, on Tuesday, were motivated to vote.

Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times

At first light, an army of union workers — those who cook the meals and clean the rooms — set out to drum up Election Day votes, prepared to make the pitch in Mandarin, Spanish or Tagalog. Among the foot soldiers was Tedros Naga, 51, an Ethiopian immigrant who works as a cook.

He and his wife both lost their jobs as the virus leveled the tourism and entertainment industries. With little work to find in Las Vegas, he spent October knocking on doors, encouraging fellow union members to vote early. It has not been a hard sell.

“People have no work,” Mr. Naga said. “People have no food. They maybe soon are losing their house. They want change.”

The virus has struck as well at the core of the American psyche — at the crossroads of individual rights and collective resolve. The federal recommendation to wear a mask, for example, makes obvious sense to some but smacks of deep-state oppression to others.

At a polling station in the New Church of Faith, just outside Orlando, Fla., a woman named Veronica, 35, said she had voted for Mr. Trump because she feared for her freedoms. Moments later, a woman named Dorothy, 45, emerged to say she had voted for Mr. Biden because she feared for her freedoms.

On an Election Day in a pandemic, at a time when the national divide seemed more like a chasm than a fracture, two voters exiting a church were united at least in the operative emotion of 2020: fear.

Reporting was contributed by Eric Adelson, Tim Arango, Mike Baker, Ellen Barry, Julie Bosman, Jill Cowan, Elizabeth Dias, Caitlin Dickerson, John Eligon, Richard Fausset, Manny Fernandez, Thomas Fuller, Hallie Golden, J. David Goodman, Ruth Graham, Jack Healy, Miriam Jordan, Patricia Mazzei, Neil MacFarquhar, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Sarah Mervosh, Dave Philipps, Campbell Robertson, Frances Robles, Rick Rojas, Simon Romero, Carol Rosenberg, Sabrina Tavernise, Lucy Tompkins and Will Wright.

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