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‘A rough, rough year’: Our Pa. Election Day will be one of fear met by determination | Maria Panaritis

Conversations in a Delaware County voting line show how a potential record turnout on Tuesday is a matter of civic conviction unseen in generations.

Jacqueline St. Germain (right) waits in line to apply for a mail in ballot at the Delaware County Bureau of Elections Voter Service Center in Media, PA on the last day to do so, October 27, 2020. (Rachel Wisniewski / For the Inquirer)
Jacqueline St. Germain (right) waits in line to apply for a mail in ballot at the Delaware County Bureau of Elections Voter Service Center in Media, PA on the last day to do so, October 27, 2020. (Rachel Wisniewski / For the Inquirer)Read moreRACHEL WISNIEWSKI / For the Inquirer

They sat for hours on brick walls waiting, like DeAngelo Lindsey of Yeadon, to square away early election ballots outside a courthouse miles from home.

Their determination was unlike anything seen in generations. But there was fear, too — a dread that should have no place in American democracy with a presidential election just days away.

As they had done for weeks in remote voting locations across Pennsylvania, voters by the hundreds snaked over several blocks outside the Delaware County Government Center in Media when I stopped by on Tuesday. It was a portrait of civic conviction fueling what are expected to be voter turnout levels unseen in a century. And while the voters' stated reason was to beat the deadline that day for requesting mail ballots, a deeper determination was at play. It was the very force animating so much of our politics in this most volatile of years.

Hovering over the hundreds were questions once unfathomable in the United States:

What will happen on Election Day at in-person voting sites, and after polls close, in this battleground state? Will there be voter intimidation or violence? How about pre-ordained court rulings, as some fear of the U.S. Supreme Court, to engineer a Trump re-election by tossing some of the millions of early votes that have poured in overwhelmingly from Democratic voters in this first year of expanded mail-in balloting in Pennsylvania?

“I feel like they’re going to do something to not make our vote count,” Lindsey said when I asked why the 34-year-old EMT had been waiting hours for an election bureau official to call his name off a newly printed ballot. He had traveled nine miles from home to do this after being told his mailed-in ballot had come in “spoiled” because he had used the wrong color ink.

“I wouldn’t have voted for Biden; I really wanted Bernie Sanders,” Lindsey continued. He was a Bernie Bro, he said. Some friends back home along the West Philadelphia border are voting Trump and are not, as Democrats may be hoping, the kind of young Black men eager for Biden. Lindsey, though, is Biden or Bust.

“Anything’s better," the Upper Darby High School graduate said, "than what we’ve got now.”

The sight of so many citizens inching their way around an expansive Delaware County courthouse building was surreal, considering the recent history of the place.

Until Democrats won control of county offices last November in a historic sweep that followed years of Democratic gains across the Philadelphia suburbs, this had been a Republican stronghold for decades. A national standard-bearer for conservatism promulgated by an implacable patronage machine.

But here we were in October 2020, ahead of the most consequential presidential election in our lifetimes: Lanyard-wearing civil servants from inside that onetime GOP patronage den were furiously swapping people’s driver licenses for affidavits and ballot applications, passing them from tent to tent in front of this edifice of former Republican power. They were doing this even as Republicans and Trump were maneuvering in and out of court to attack the mail-in ballot count in Pennsylvania come Election Day.

» READ MORE: Trump and Republicans are muscling toward a Pennsylvania election heist | Maria Panaritis

Weary from waiting, they nonetheless held their tongues as bureaucrats struggled, in real time, to essentially fly an airplane that they have been building simultaneously since the pandemic exploded in March: a mail-in voting infrastructure nonexistent in Pennsylvania until this year.

“I was gonna come out November 3rd like all the Trump supporters,” said used-car salesman Dan Naimoli, 60, of Norwood. He was wrong to think early voting would avoid long lines. Trump supporters are expected to far outnumber Democrats in person on Tuesday, just as liberals have disproportionately cast early ballots compared to conservatives.

“The silent majority," Naimoli said, "are gonna come out.”

Two people away in line, 30-year-old Karley Jennings shared a polar opposite perspective. She’s a new Democratic mother — her baby was born during the coronavirus lockdown in March. She lives surrounded by Trump diehards in Boothwyn.

“My dad is independent, I’m a Democrat, my mom’s a Democrat," Jennings said. "My dad registered Republican to vote against Trump in the primary.”

On a nearby lawn I found Ed Hartnett, 71, a business owner from Aston. He took the day off from work after finding his elderly mother’s ballot forgotten under a stash of mail at home.

“I think we’re a train wreck waiting to happen,” Hartnett said of the state of the union.

The Democrat is voting in person for Biden on Tuesday to hedge against any court maneuver to invalidate mail-in ballots by Republican-friendly judges.

“I want to make sure my vote counts,” Hartnett said.

For all the fear, there also were miracles in the mix. Lindsey was in line in the first place because a bureaucrat had spotted the bad on ink on his mail ballot. He was beaming with joy after his name was finally called.

After completing and dropping his ballot into a guarded box, he told me what it had been like to be laid off right before the pandemic. Months later, he is close to starting what he hopes will be a career job with SEPTA. We found that we both had the same high school music teacher. He mentioned that while some young Black men in his friend circle are pro-Trump, they have a rule to not judge each other.

We looked around at the people still waiting in line. What did he think?

“It’s just been a rough, rough year,” Lindsey said. Coronavirus, layoffs, street demonstrations, a hate-mongering president, a turbulent Election Day just around the corner.

“Just the fact that people are coming out to vote,” he said with a smile, "is amazing.”