I had hoped, as dawn broke, that the euphoria of record-breaking voter participation would wash over Pennsylvania with such force as to scrub away the ugly, undemocratic and unsettling realities of life as it has become in our incendiary time.
But Election Day, instead, felt like a roller coaster ride of whiplash and worry.
For six dizzying hours on Tuesday, I sought to size up early signs of the most fraught presidential contest in living memory. I started out in Philadelphia’s blue-for-Biden suburbs and made my way 90 minutes west into deep-red-for-Trump Amish country.
When the ride ended, I felt sick to my stomach.
In the suburbs where Democrats were hoping to surge Joe Biden to victory with massive turnout unseen in the Clinton-Trump race of 2016, I heard about liberals marching their empty mail-in ballots to local polling sites in Delaware and Montgomery Counties. Would-be absentee voters no longer wanted to use Pennsylvania’s expanded mail-in ballot law. They were concerned about President Donald Trump and his Republican Party’s candid plans to attack the counting of mail-in votes in this battleground state so they ditched their empty ballots at the polls to instead vote in person.
What I later found in durably long voter lines in heavily Republican Lancaster County was a disturbing version of the gospel according to Trump. Two of the first men I spoke with in a voting line in Manheim warned that gun-owning Trump diehards would unleash violence if the president failed to win reelection for whatever reason.
We are a state and a nation at war amongst ourselves.
With no clear sense of how the vote count would proceed amid the pandemic and legal challenges over mail-in ballot tabulations that mostly favor Democrats, it is an understatement to say that all did not feel well on this bright and sunny Election Day in battleground Pennsylvania.
“If we had civil unrest with President Trump ... ," said 51-year-old short-haul trucker Dan Edwards, cutting himself off as he waited to vote at Penn Township Municipal Building.
“If Biden gets in,” he said pausing again. "It’s a good thing they’re calling in the National Guard because there will be some very unhappy people. Things are gonna explode.”
“I’m not gonna be one of the ones rioting,” he continued. The gun owners, Edwards said, will be the ones who rise up. “I just see the writing on the wall. It’s gonna explode.”
Standing nervously in that same line, 28-year-old social worker Rachel Nauman described a sense of unease.
“Manheim is a super conservative, close-minded town,” she said. The registered Democrat seemed uncomfortable "to be voting the way I’m voting, surrounding by people who are not like-minded.”
The line at this polling place was wrapped around the building at 3 p.m. — and had been long since the start of the day. Even Amish men and women stood patiently in straw hats and bonnets, some of whom were voting for the first time.
This was a Trump crowd through and through. And in a county whose hundreds of thousands of conservative Republican voters are considered a prize in any presidential election.
“Our first time out,” said a 50-year-old Amish man who refused to share his name but who was the only one to speak as I asked him and his two Amish female companions the same questions. “Our friends and neighbors just persuaded us.”
I came to Lancaster because of efforts on the ground by Republicans to grow their share of voters there, in part by recruiting Amish voters to help offset expected Democratic turnout gains across the state. Since 2016, Republicans added about 20,000 registered voters in Lancaster County to 7,000 by the Democrats. Republicans outnumber Democrats in Lancaster County 3-to-1, at roughly 354,000 to 115,000.
For the same reason, but from a polar opposite ideological perspective, I also took a spin through heavily Democratic Delaware County.
Turnout early in the day across the former GOP stronghold appeared encouraging for liberals. But optimism was tamped down by fear of massive voter disenfranchisement: Just how many Democrats who tried to vote by mail had been harmed by machinations at the Trump-controlled U.S. Postal Service? How many who had managed to vote remotely would find their ballots tied up in a GOP legal blitz leaving a share of the absentee vote uncounted?
“Someone was showing me pictures yesterday of disassembled sorting machines at Lindbergh Boulevard,” said U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D., Delaware) of a major Postal Service distribution hub in Philadelphia. She mentioned this as she and I talked outside a polling site at Marple-Newtown High School.
Scanlon’s office also was investigating complaints of ballots not being delivered in bulk, her spokeswoman later told me.
Standing with me and Scanlon was Democratic state House candidate Deb Ciamacca, a former Marine and retired 62-year-old Conestoga High School social studies teacher looking to oust Republican incumbent Christopher Quinn.
Ciamacca told us something she had heard from a voter at a different polling place earlier in the day.
“Somebody told me I should be in jail,” Ciamacca said.
Ugly, undemocratic, unsettling. No matter how the votes land in Pennsylvania, good luck erasing the dangerous divide laid bare on this historic day.