For months, the 2020 election has been spun — and rightfully so — as more than a choice between two candidates, but as a battle for the soul of America.
And nobody said this was going to be easy.
Any interested voters hoping — perhaps naively — to go to bed early saw their hopes dashed as the early bellwether state of Florida went for President Donald Trump, aided by a big surge toward the Republican in the state’s largest population center of Miami-Dade County. But Democrat Joe Biden showed surprising strength in the Rust Belt state of Ohio — won by Trump in 2016 — setting the stage for long night and possibly a long week.
The muddled, unclear picture came at the end of what felt like the longest Election Day in American history. It started before the sun even rose, as voters in all 50 states lined up in the dawn gloaming and stiff November gales to cast their ballots as soon as the polls opened — as if they were fearful the vagaries of 2020 would crash down on them if they waited any later.
Midmorning, I hopped in my car and headed to St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church in the heart of South Philadelphia, after I’d seen a photo of shivering masses of voters lined up for two blocks. The church is just a stone’s throw from South Street, where the CVS and Whole Foods were covered in plywood, the stress wall of a national nervous breakdown.
But when I arrived at 11:30 a.m., the lines had dissipated, the sun was poking through, and I ran into something I never expected at the end of the most fraught election in modern American history: Unbridled joy, coursing through the narrow canyon of Ellsworth Street. That came courtesy of the nine superheroes of the Sun Ra Arkestra — in trippy costumes, like Mummers from outer space — and their patrons, the nonpartisan Election Defenders and their pro-democracy celebration called Joy to the Polls.
“We’re just keeping it safe and joyful in the lines,” the Election Defenders’ Sarah Sophie Flicker told me, adding “we want to make the day as festive as possible in an attempt to push back on voter suppression.” The brightly attired Flicker gyrated to the existential jazz, while her colleagues doled out slices of pizza or bottled water. They catered to some voters who seemed too anxious to leave, as if their votes might disappear if they left the scene.
“I’ve been in line to vote for four years,” a man with graying hair and a Members Only jacket who’d only give his name as Frank, because he works for the U.S. Postal Service, told me. In reality, he’d been at St. Maron since he arrived there to cast his ballot for Biden at 6:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the polls opened. “I’m sick of hearing the same catchphrases," he said. "The president doesn’t have to be in the news every day.”
Nearby was Heathyr McNiece, a 35-year-old project manager who’s voted Republican her entire life — until Tuesday. “The country is so divided now and I think we need a president who’ll work to unite us and get everybody on the same page again instead of fighting each other,” she said. Did she feel hopeful? “I feel nervous.”
There was a lot of that — lingering PTSD from 2016′s election shocker. Had I driven to Oklahoma or West Virginia, I’d no doubt be hearing different things — about antifa and riots, maybe, or how Trump knows how to own the libs. But not in deep blue Philadelphia.
And yet despite America’s deep division, there was an oddly Y2K kind of feel about Election Day — at least in the daylight hours — as all the dire predictions about what could possibly go wrong ... didn’t go wrong. There was no horrific violence, and few if any reports of alleged voter intimidation. Trump’s supposed “army” of 50,000 election observers seems to have melted into the jungle like the Viet Cong. The overall vote count could reach 160 million, shattering records. Whatever happens the next four years, democracy didn’t die on Tuesday.
I headed up to Independence Hall — the place where this all began — and the streets were quiet, despite reports that Biden was coming to the neighborhood in his final whirlwind tour of Pennsylvania. “I feel a lot of pressure,” 27-year-old Alice Gallagher, who’d already voted near Graduate Hospital and was looking for Biden, told me, adding: “Even if Biden wins, which is what I want, we have so much to still deal with.”
Behind Gallagher stood the iconic spire of the building where the Founders worked mightily to hash out the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — and probably never imagined a president like Donald Trump, or a day like this one. As she spoke, a low afternoon sun labored to break through thick gray clouds.