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Voters across Pennsylvania find themselves consumed with Election Day fear and anxiety

It was a day when political pleadings were scrawled on the pavement in chalk and carried through the sky on airplane banners.

An elderly voter, center, leaves the polling place at Barry Playground with a companion after voting, in South Philadelphia, on Election Day Tuesday.
An elderly voter, center, leaves the polling place at Barry Playground with a companion after voting, in South Philadelphia, on Election Day Tuesday.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

PITTSBURGH — Lucille Mosur has voted in every presidential election since 1960, when she cast a ballot for John F. Kennedy.

And she’s never been so nervous on Election Day.

“I never thought we would need to board up our cities,” said Mosur, a petite 86-year-old Democrat who lives in Bridgeville, a suburb south of the Steel City, and voted by mail. “I’m afraid for our country.”

On Tuesday, Mosur spoke for millions, for the voters who found that their nerves were no longer jangled — they were shot. Now the national nervous breakdown that had been building for weeks could commence in full, driven by the reality that the winner in tip-the-election Pennsylvania might not be known for days.

In blue-as-the-sea Philadelphia, and west across the beet-red heartland of Central Pennsylvania, it was a day when political pleadings were scrawled on the pavement in chalk and carried through the sky on airplane banners, when the demand that “Black Lives Matter” was writ large on T-shirts and signs, and ugly, racist shouts of “White Power!” echoed across sidewalks.

“So many people are just getting carried away,” said Judge of Elections Wendy Penrose, overseeing a polling place at St. Patrick’s Church Hall in Johnstown.

A cold slap in Cambria County

She wasn’t kidding.

Penrose said she was slapped by a voter who became angry over the provisional-ballot process.

That amid what was already the most tense Election Day she’s experienced, with rival campaign workers squabbling over the placement of political signs, and people cursing her when they tried to vote in person after already having submitted a ballot by mail.

She wasn’t injured by the slap and didn’t file a police report, saying she knows the man from the neighborhood. It was not clear for whom he intended to vote.

But the divide across Pennsylvania was as stark and biting as the ceaseless Election Day wind.

» READ MORE: The Divided States of Pennsylvania: How one state embodies America's political discord

Outside the polling place at the Bristol Township Administration Building in Bucks County, 72-year-old Norman Ely called President Donald Trump “an idiot” with “bad manners.”

“But to me it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I personally like what he’s done for the country. … If Biden gets elected, I think it’s going to be a disaster.”

Election Day sent shivering morning voters to the polls in woolen hats and thick winter coats, where many stood in lines so long and snaking they could have been in Disneyland. In Moon Township, north of Pittsburgh, the line to vote at the Potomac Air Lodge wrapped around the union hall, forcing arriving motorists to park on the grass or to quickly drop off voters and leave.

A banner day

In North Philadelphia, a small plane flew overhead, trailing an advertising banner that read, “Vote Like Your Life Depends On It.” A brass band showed up to entertain outside the St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church voting place in South Philadelphia.

In Aston, Delaware County, two antiracism groups waved “Black Lives Matter” signs and flags at the busy Five Points intersection.

“White Power,” yelled a motorist, a 30-something man who then drove past a second time, this time wearing a Trump Halloween mask.

An empty blue pickup truck sat outside Palace Caterers in Gloucester Township, Camden County, painted with a message for voters entering the polling place: “Demonrats go home. Red Wave.

» READ MORE: It may look like Trump is winning Pa. before votes start to shift toward Biden. Whoever wins, that’s not fraud.

At City Hall in Center City, someone placed yellow chrysanthemums in the hand of the statue of Octavius Catto, the Black civil rights activist who was murdered in Election Day violence in Philadelphia in 1871.

“The country has never been so divided,” said high school teacher and longtime Democratic committee person Marc Lieberson, 68, of Cheltenham. “This is the most divided the country has been since the Civil War. … Before, you could disagree with people and still be friends. Now you can’t.”

Now there’s a huge divide, evident in this election.

Uncle Sam in Lower Bucks

“It’s a choice between socialism and freedom,” insisted Republican poll watcher Ross Frey. He stood outside Franklin D. Roosevelt Middle School in Bristol, dressed as an ersatz Uncle Sam in red pants and star-spangled blue jacket, missing only the long white beard and having substituted a MAGA cap for a top hat.

Joe Biden was favored in national and state polls, but Trump also had paths to victory.

“I’m afraid to say it but [Trump] just has a lot of support up here,” said Joe O’Malley, who cast his vote for Biden in Northeast Philadelphia’s 66th Ward, one of two wards in the city won by the president four years ago. “And I don’t always vote with the Democratic Party. Hey, you’ve got to vote with your heart.”

At Central Bucks High School South in Warrington, Rina Kim, 49, declined to say whether she supported Trump or Biden, but, “We don’t want to be taxed and give the bulk of our income to the government.”

Others were happy to share their preference.

Why did Joanne Trovato-Brown vote for Biden?

“Because I have a brain,” she said with a laugh, casting her vote at the Doylestown Fire Company. “That might be one reason.”

Nearby, wearing a cap emblazoned, “Don’t Tread on Me,” 19-year-old Julian Kendter proferred his first presidential vote, for Trump, believing the Republican can best lead an economic revival from the pandemic that has cut sales at his family-owned toy store.

Lawn sign battle in Jersey

In Palmyra, a battle of lawn signs raged: Steal them from us and they’ll bloom back better, pledged Charles Ballard and Dana Janquitto.

The married couple awoke Monday morning to find their Biden signs gone. Ballard, 45, immediately ordered replacements via overnight delivery — and made an extra contribution to the Biden-Harris campaign.

By Tuesday morning their lawn blossomed anew with Biden signs and American flags.

“They can take our signs, but they can’t take our vote,” said Janquitto, 36.

Jocelyne Manning’s Delaware County polling place made her somewhat uneasy, and it had nothing to do with politics.

“It’s a little weird voting at a funeral home,” said Manning, 29, who lives in Darby Borough’s First Ward. But she found the act of casting a ballot to be restorative after a difficult year of pandemic.

Sekeday Mator, 62, a certified nursing assistant, went to the funeral home in her green medical scrubs. A registered Democrat and Liberian immigrant, she voted for the president.

“I voted for Trump because of pro-life. I am a Christian,” she said. “I did vote Democrat. Then they legalized homosexualism and I decided not to go with them anymore. I go with God.”

People voted as Pennsylvania reported its highest daily increase of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, 2,875 new positives and 32 new deaths on Tuesday.

Voters generally seemed to wear protective masks, and stood spaced, respecting a pandemic that is spreading not just in Pennsylvania’s big metropolitan areas but in smaller towns and rural counties — the same as in the nation’s Midwestern and Western states that previously saw little infection.

Nationally the virus is killing nearly 1,000 people a day.

“I was never that much into politics,” said Michael Lefever, 51, who on Tuesday voted for the first time in his life, casting a ballot for Biden at the Picariello Playground polling place in Northeast Philadelphia. “I never really thought it affected me. I was just a blue-collar guy who went to work and got a paycheck.”

But this year, “because of the nature of the election, I thought it was important to get out here and vote.”

Faith, but not in the U.S. mail

In the solidly Democratic city of York, Darcelia Tyson came to vote wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and a safety mask emblazoned with the words faith, hope, and love.

“I didn’t trust the mail,” said the 65-year-old child-care worker.

Pennsylvania voters have returned 2.5 million mail ballots, according to the State Department. That’s more than 80% of all ballots requested. The lead may swing from one candidate to the other, and that’s not fraud or the election being stolen — it’s just the votes being tallied.

Some Pennsylvania counties won’t start counting those ballots until Wednesday.

In New Jersey, 3.7 million votes had been cast in advance, just 200,000 less than the total turnout in 2016, according to Gov. Phil Murphy.

Mosur, the 86-year-old from suburban Pittsburgh, longs for a return to the era when Democrats accepted the victories of Republicans and the opposition did the same, and no president sought to discredit the electoral process or suggest he might not peacefully surrender power.

“It was all civil,” she said. “Now we seem to be preparing for civil war.”

Staff writers Stephanie Farr, Anna Orso, Maddie Hanna, Jeremy Roebuck, Julie Shaw, Chris Brennan, Amy S. Rosenberg, Will Bunch, Sean Walsh, and Barbara Laker contributed to this article, as did photographers Tyger Williams and Alejandro A. Alvarez, and Ed Mahon of Spotlight PA.