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How long is this going to take? Americans settle in to wait

Patience is a virtue that municipal leaders, meditation experts and anyone who has glanced in passing at various Election Day scenarios keep urging voters to embrace. Fine. But easier said than done

By Sarah Lyall
Published: Nov 4, 2020

How long is this going to take? Americans settle in to waitA long-exposure photograph shows voters in line to cast their ballots at a polling place inside St. Martin of Tours Church in Franklin, Wis., on Tuesday morning, Nov. 3, 2020. Patience is a virtue that municipal leaders, meditation experts and anyone who has glanced in passing at various Election Day scenarios keep urging voters to embrace. Fine, but easier said than done.
Image: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Hurray, Election Day!

Not that the arrival of Nov. 3, after what has seemed like a 1,000-year campaign, felt like much consolation.

“The whole thing is just a gigantic nightmare,” said Robin Helmericks, a scientist who voted early with her 19-year-old daughter in Charleston, South Carolina, on Monday.

Or, as Ian Dunt, a British political journalist, said on Twitter: “There’s not enough booze in all the world for sitting through the American election results.”

If the election generated that sort of distress in someone 3,000 miles away, how did actual Americans, marinating in a sea of collective angst, get through the day? And: If there was no result Tuesday night, how will we hang on until there is?

“Patience,” exhorted the mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney, in an open letter urging the residents of his city to remain calm through Tuesday and beyond.

“After the polls close, and in the ensuing days, we will continue to need your patience,” he went on. “Never in the history of this city have so many people voted by mail. By law, staffers are not allowed to start opening and counting these ballots until Election Day itself.”

Kenney noted that the results in Pennsylvania — and, by extension, the rest of the country — might not be known for a while. That’s the message election officials everywhere have been trying to emphasize, as they cope with the pandemic reality of a record number of mail-in ballots.

“This has been the slow-moving election from hell with all the early voting,” Drew McKissick, chair of South Carolina’s Republican Party, said on Monday, eagerly anticipating its end. “It’s been draining.”

The overriding prediction was that getting through this election will indeed take patience, although it’s anyone’s guess for how long. (How long is a piece of string? Sometimes, in the run-up to Tuesday it felt as if the country was playing a brutal, penalty-filled soccer game that would clearly go into extra time — but we didn't yet know how long that extra period would last.)

The specter of civil unrest loomed large in the mind of voters like Paulino Leon, 70, a Tucson, Arizona, voter who identifies as an independent. On Tuesday, he said he was confident of a Joe Biden victory, but was not sure that President Donald Trump would accept the results.

“I bought canned food and have things set up in my house so I can stay there for at least two months,” he said. “And I’ve got my guns.”

Stationed outside a polling station in Atlanta’s historically Black West End neighborhood so that he could help direct residents of a local senior center to their proper polling place at a nearby library, Mark Robinson, 55, noticed two things in the parking lot: a big, gray-black Dodge Ram pickup truck festooned with flags and operated by a driver who exited the lot after being spotted, and a Chevrolet Suburban occupied by an agent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, there to ensure that the voting ran smoothly.

Robinson said he felt as if violence was “almost assured” in America on Election Day. “I don’t think I’m being pessimistic,” he said, referring to Trump’s recent comments about the far-right Proud Boys group. “I mean, the president said ‘Stand back and stand by,’” he said. “I’m presuming that’s what they’re doing.”

In Minneapolis, Justin Salz, 41, said he planned to vote for Trump, despite finding the president too brash and tweet-happy. He also said his plan was to vote and then “go dark” — order takeout sushi with his family, go to bed without watching the news and check the results in the morning.

That seemed to be the smart approach. According to Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, anticipatory dread only increases as waiting continues.

“Quite a lot of research suggests that the worst is yet to come as far as anxiety,” said Sweeny, who specializes in the psychology of waiting.

“Even people who are general optimists show a decline in optimism as the moment of truth draws nearer,” Sweeny said.

Contributing to the current difficulty is that no one seemed able to predict when this nirvanic (or hellish, depending) “moment of truth” might actually arrive. That left people fretting and obsessing even more, particularly about the direction they see the country going in.

“As individuals, we’ve all developed more of a capacity for hate,” said Angela Smith, 35, one of about a dozen people waiting to vote at the Bigler Street polling place in South Philadelphia on Tuesday morning. “We are all capable of hating in a way that I didn’t think was possible until now.”

Smith, a teacher, mostly laid the blame on the Trump administration, which she said had sent out misinformation “and all kinds of things that get people churning and burning.”

Michael Miller, director and co-founder of the New York Meditation Center, said it was important not to play out unpleasant situations in one’s head.

“This whole season has been focused on speculating about what is going to happen,” he said. “But getting caught up in the moment-by-moment question of what results are coming in — that has never been good practice.”

Stay in the present, he counseled. Clean your oven, rake some leaves, go for a walk, take off your shoes, feel the carpet on your feet. Breathe.

“If you think, ‘Don’t think about the election, don’t think about the election, don’t think about the election,’ then the election has become your mantra,” he said, “and that’s not going to do you any good.”

All day, officials exhorted the public to stay calm and not to expect a result too quickly.

In a joint statement, officials from a disparate coalition of groups — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the National Association of Evangelicals; the AFL-CIO; and the National African American Clergy Network — implored people to wait peacefully until every last vote had been counted.

“With voting ending today, it is imperative that election officials be given the space and time to count every vote in accordance with applicable laws,” the statement said. “We call on the media, the candidates and the American people to exercise patience with the process and trust in our system, even if it requires more time than usual.

“It is important to remember that challenges are a normal part of every election,” the statement read. “We are confident our country and its institutions can rise to this historic moment.”

Good luck along the way.

“What is the German word for ‘feeling physically nauseous from anxiety at the news but also morbidly unable to look away and stop scrolling?” novelist Celeste Ng wrote on Twitter.

Mac Stipanovich, a Republican strategist and lobbyist in Florida who was intimately involved in the slow-burn nightmare of the 2000 election (his candidate won, but still) said that in many ways, it’s easier to be a campaign operative or a volunteer during stressful elections. Even if the tide is going against you, you’re too busy doing your job to indulge in your distress.

“It’s like having a broken foot and then being shot in the other leg — you don’t notice the foot so much,” he said.

Things are harder for regular voters whose civic engagement consists, basically, of one moment of voting followed by 1 million moments of catastrophizing.

“I try to distract myself,” Stipanovich said on Monday. “Yesterday I walked for 7 miles. Today I’m mowing and edging. I might go for a drive.”

He is also trying to avoid flaming his enemies on social media. “I will scan Twitter looking for news stories in which the vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida pops up and says something dumb,” Stipanovich said. “Whereas I would have engaged in the past, now I don’t, because it’s pointless.”

Judy Betty, a 79-year-old retired principal from Marana, Arizona, a suburb of Tucson, said on Monday that her mood was swinging like a pendulum between manic and depressed, depending on which news sources she listened to and which polls she read. As a Trump supporter, she said she has been heartened by the size and enthusiasm of the crowds at his most recent rallies.

She said she planned to watch the election results roll in on TV Tuesday night and intended to limit herself to “one cocktail.” She also expected there to be a winner by bedtime.

“If he loses,” she said of Trump, “I’m just going to go to bed.”

Her husband, Jim, a retired accountant, had a different plan. If the president loses, he said, he would liquidate the family’s stocks on Wednesday.

©2019 New York Times News Service