WASHINGTON — After a campaign marked by rancor and fear, Americans on Tuesday decide between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, selecting a leader to steer a nation battered by a surging pandemic that has killed more than 231,000 people, cost millions their jobs and reshaped daily life.
Nearly 100 million Americans voted early, and now it falls to Election Day voters to finish the job, ending a campaign that was upended by the coronavirus and defined by tensions over who could best address it. Each candidate declared the other fundamentally unfit to lead a nation grappling with COVID-19 and facing foundational questions about racial justice and economic fairness.
Biden entered Election Day with multiple paths to victory while Trump, playing catch-up in a number of battleground states, had a narrower but still feasible road to clinch 270 Electoral College votes. Control of the Senate was at stake, too: Democrats needed to net three seats if Biden captured the White House to gain control of all of Washington for the first time in a decade. The House was expected to remain under Democratic control.
Voters braved long lines and the threat of the virus to cast ballots as they chose between two starkly different visions of America for the next four years. The record-setting early vote — and legal skirmishing over how it will be counted — drew unsupported allegations of fraud from Trump, who refused to guarantee he would honor the election's result.
Fighting to the end for every vote, Biden was headed to Philadelphia and stopped by a carpenters' union hall in his native Scranton on Tuesday as part of a closing get-out-the-vote effort before awaiting election results in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. His running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, was visiting Detroit, a heavily Black city in battleground Michigan. Both of their spouses were headed out, too, as the Democrats reached for a clear victory.
Biden and his wife, Jill, started the day with a stop at St. Joseph's on the Brandywine in Wilmington, Delaware, with two of his grandchildren in tow. After a brief church visit, the four walked to his late son Beau Biden's grave, in the church cemetery. Beau, a former Delaware attorney general, died of brain cancer in 2015 and had encouraged the former vice president to make another White House run.
Trump made a morning appearance on "Fox & Friends," where he predicted he will win by a larger electoral margin than he did in 2016, when he tallied 306 electoral college votes compared to Democrat Hillary Clinton's 232. The president, who returned to the White House after 3 a.m. on Tuesday following a busy day of campaigning, also planned to visit his campaign headquarters in Virginia. He invited hundreds of supporters to an election night party in the East Room of the White House.
The first polls close at 6 p.m. Eastern time in swaths of Indiana and Kentucky, followed by a steady stream of poll closings every 30 minutes to an hour throughout the evening. The last polls in Alaska shut down at 1 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday.
The hard-fought campaign left voters on both sides eager to move on.
"I believe there's a lot of division and separation," said Kelvin Hardnett, who was among more than two dozen voters who lined up more than hour before the polling site at the Cobb County Civic Center outside Atlanta opened on Tuesday morning. "And I believe that once we get past the names and the titles and the personal agendas, then you know, we can focus on some real issues."
On their final full day on the campaign trail, Trump and Biden broke sharply over the mechanics of the vote itself while visiting the most fiercely contested battleground, Pennsylvania.
The Republican president threatened legal action to block the counting of ballots received after Election Day. If Pennsylvania ballot counting takes several days, as is allowed, Trump claimed without evidence that "cheating can happen like you have never seen."
In fact, there are roughly 20 states that allow mail-in ballots received after Election Day to be counted — up to nine days and longer in some states. Litigation has centered on just a few where states have made changes in large part due to the coronavirus.
Biden told voters in Pennsylvania that the very fabric of the nation was at stake and offered his own election as the firmest rebuke possible to a president who he said had spent "four years dividing us at every turn."
"Tomorrow's the beginning of a new day. Tomorrow we can put an end to a president that's left hardworking Americans out in the cold!" Biden said in Pittsburgh. "If you elect me as president, I'm gonna act to heal this country."
Trump argued, at a stop in Wisconsin, that Biden was "not what our country needs." He added: "This isn't about — yeah, it is about me, I guess, when you think about it."
The nation braced for what was to come — and a result that might not be known for days.
A new anti-scale fence was erected around the White House. And in downtowns ranging from New York to Denver to Minneapolis, workers boarded up businesses lest the vote lead to unrest of the sort that broke out earlier this year amid protests over racial inequality.
Just a short walk from the White House, for block after block, stores had their windows and doors covered. Some kept just a front door open, hoping to attract a little business.
Both candidates voted early, but first lady Melania Trump was set to cast her ballot Tuesday near Mar-a-Lago, the couple's estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
Whoever wins will have to deal with an anxious nation, reeling from a once-in-a-century heath crisis that has closed schools and businesses and that is worsening as the weather turns cold.
In Atlanta, occupational therapy practitioner Justin Windom, 29, said he was unsure if he was going to even cast a ballot until last night. But after speaking with his parents and one of his patients, he said he decided to get up at the crack of dawn and cast his ballot for Biden as the "lesser of two evils."
"These next four years are going to make or break how far we go as a country," Windom said.
Trump in Grand Rapids insisted anew that the nation was "rounding the turn" on the virus. But Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, broke with the president and joined a chorus of Trump administration scientists sounding the alarm about the current spike in infections.
"We are entering the most concerning and most deadly phase of this pandemic," Birx wrote in a memo distributed to top administration officials. She added that the nation was not implementing "balanced" measures needed to slow the spread of the virus. One recipient confirmed the contents that were initially reported Monday by The Washington Post.
The pandemic has shadowed the campaign, which has largely been a referendum of Trump's handling of the virus.
In Concord, New Hampshire, 70-year-old Linda Eastman said she was giving her vote to Trump, saying, "Maybe he wasn't perfect with the coronavirus, but I think he did the best that he could with what he had."
In Virginia Beach, it was a vote for Biden from 54-year-old Gabriella Cochrane, who said she thought the former vice president would "surround himself with the brightest and the best" to fight the pandemic.
The challenge of counting a record-setting early vote added a layer of uncertainty to an election marked by suspicions fueled by an incumbent who has consistently trailed in the polls.
Trump, in Pennsylvania, zeroed in on the state's process to count mail-in votes that arrive after Election Day, vowing that "we're going in with our lawyers" as soon as the polls close. He tweeted — without evidence — that "violence in the street" could follow the Supreme Court's decision to grant an extension to count the votes arriving after Tuesday.