She carefully planned a five-hour drive to the polling place in her Tennessee hometown to vote on Election Day. She considered the traffic, the weather, the surging coronavirus pandemic and — something she never imagined having to contemplate — the possibility of civil unrest in the aftermath of an American election.
The last four years have delivered so many shocks that anything seemed possible to Lacey Stannard, the wife of a soldier. She had tried to get an absentee ballot sent to her home on a military base on the other side of the state. But the clerk in her hometown refused. A part of her thought it was crazy to drive 10 hours roundtrip to cast a Democratic vote in deep-red Tennessee, but a larger part thought it was worth it to register her displeasure.
Americans voting on Election Day are exhausted from constant crises, uneasy because of volatile political divisions and anxious about what will happen next. Like those who cast ballots early, their agony is not in deciding between President Donald Trump or his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. Most made that choice long ago. Instead, those voting in record numbers say basic democratic foundations feel suddenly brittle: Will their vote count? Will the loser accept the result? Will the winner find a way to repair a fractured, sick and unsettled nation?
Stannard, a 28-year-old mother of two, hit the road Monday evening to arrive at the polls early on Election Day, only to turn around and rush home before an uncertain conclusion might aggravate a nation already on edge — fear she blames on the president's penchant for pitting people against each other.
"When the election results start trickling in, I would rather be safe at home, which is sad because never in my life… would I have thought I have to hurry up and vote and get home so that I wouldn't have to be fearful," she said. "Which is one of the reasons I'm driving five hours to vote because I shouldn't have to feel that way."
Across the country, Americans say the stress of this election has made them physically ill. Others have obsessively tracked polls to soothe their nerves, or bought guns, or researched moving abroad, or retreated to a cabin in the woods. Tension has ratcheted up, as each side believes the other is threatening to usher in the end of America as we know it.
On Tuesday morning in the critical battleground suburbs of Detroit, 57-year-old Karama Mishkoor and her daughter planned to vote, go to work and immediately head home.
"Please, please, please don't go anywhere else," Mishkoor begged her daughter, 24-year-old Ashley.
Mishkoor, a devout Catholic and immigrant from Iraq, said she fled that country decades ago for peace, stability and freedom, and she's sad that now this nation seems so shaken. They support Trump, but didn't put signs in the yard because there's so much anger. Ashley Mishkoor said she'd seen the partisan vitriol piling up on social media and wondered: What if that cracks open in real life?
"This week is really scary," she said. "I'm just hoping, whatever way it goes, there's peace in our country."
A nation already uncertain about its future amid a worsening pandemic, an economic sucker punch and series of police killings that forced a national reckoning on racism is now contemplating the added threat of possible clashes in the wake of Election Day.
Caravans of Trump supporters clogged traffic around the New York metropolitan area this weekend. In Texas, cars and pickup trucks festooned with Trump flags swarmed a Biden campaign bus, sometimes boxing it in. Trump criticized the F.B.I. for investigating the incident, calling the drivers "patriots." Weeks ago, a group of men were arrested for allegedly plotting to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan. Gun sales are through the roof. Last week, Walmart announced it removed ammunition and firearms from displays, citing "civil unrest." Trump has refused to promise a peaceful transfer of power. He told a far-right group to "stand back and stand by."
About 7 in 10 voters say they are anxious about the election, according to an AP-NORC poll last month. Only a third are excited. Biden supporters were more likely than Trump voters to be nervous — 72% to 61%.
But Trump's supporters, too, said they feel a sense of dread. The president has warned them that if he loses the country would lurch toward socialism, crime would consume the streets, freedom would buckle under political correctness.
"If we let that other guy in, all hell is going to break loose," said Dan Smith, 53, who is retired from law enforcement in Norfolk, Virginia. He said he's supporting Trump because he's concerned about "law and order."
As the coronavirus crisis surges to more than 9 million infections and 230,000 dead, the election for many is a referendum on how Trump has handled the pandemic. In the final days of the campaign, he has continued to downplay the toll it has taken, and many of his supporters say they find no fault in his response.
In New Albany, Ohio, Jason Baker, a 44-year-old real estate agent, said that despite the fact that he and his family all had COVID-19 two months ago, he cast his ballot for Trump. He believes the pandemic has "been highly politized to the point where it's disgusting." He described his vote as "a chess move" toward protecting the issues most important to him: law enforcement and the economy.
But Theresa McGarity in Mount Clemens, Michigan, lost her mother to COVID in April at 76 years old. She was a God-fearing woman and had been teaching her 8-year-old great-granddaughter how to crochet. On Friday night, McGarity brought the child to an art installation: they filled a lawn with shoes, each representing one of Macomb County's approximately 1,000 dead from the virus. A raucous pro-Trump demonstration down the street could be heard as they read the age and hometown of each of their dead.
"I guess because it hit home, it's not political anymore. It's a plain, simple right and wrong," said McGarity, who already cast a ballot for Biden. "When someone in leadership is aware of something that could flip your whole world upside down and they don't inform you. And you have the right to vote to change that, shame on you if you don't."
Early voting numbers — nearly 90 million by Saturday morning — suggest 2020 will shatter voter turnout records. Trump has alleged that widespread absentee voting will lead to fraud, though there is no evidence to support that claim.
In Topeka, Kansas, Roger Randel, a 48-year-old pastor and Trump supporter, voted early in person, citing stories of mail-in ballots found in trays of mail discarded in a Wisconsin ditch — a case the White House seized on to cast doubt on the election's integrity. The Wisconsin Elections Commission later reported that no election ballots from that state were among the discovered parcels.
"If there are honest and fair elections, yes, I think they will be respected, but if there's a lot of fraud that's been caught and seen, I think it throws a damper on the election integrity," Randel said.
And in Wichita, 51-year-old Michael Long, a former civil engineer, also voted for Trump in person early instead of mailing his ballot, then planned to later check online to be sure it was counted. Long said he's had "a falling out" with friends and family because of the "elevated emotional tension."
In Macomb County, Terry Frandle hung Trump banners outside his house and noticed that neighbors who used to stop to chat crossed to the other side of the street, not even offering a "hello." Some drivers wave, some flip the bird. He doesn't blame Trump for the discord — he blames Democrats and the media for failing to give Trump a fair shake, he said. He plans to vote in person on Election Day.
"I just don't trust anything anymore," he said — except for what he hears directly from Trump.
On the other side of the aisle, too, people are grappling with emotional political tension.
In the Chicago suburbs, Phyllis Delrosario, 73, said her mood vacillates from excitement to depression. She researched moving to another country if Trump is reelected because she thinks democracy will "cease to exist."
She worries she's taking her emotions out on her husband. Delrosario said she has a short fuse, and she blames Trump.
"I just feel like I'm this raw exposed nerve all the time, and the anxiety of all this and the chaos of 'what's he going to destroy next?' What thing is he going to step on next?' It's horrible," she said.
In Dunedin, Florida, Charles Oppermann dropped his ballot for Biden off Thursday then retreated to a mountain cabin in North Carolina to disconnect.
Oppermann, 55, spent 11 days in the hospital battling coronavirus. A few week ago, he was lying in bed, scrolling through Twitter and came across an altered photo of Trump, his skin pockmarked with red, spiky coronavirus blobs. Panicked, he got out of bed and turned on the TV to try to get that image out of his mind. He believes his intense reaction was a combination of trauma from his infection and anxiety about the election.
In the Pittsburgh suburbs, Carla Dundes, a retired 66-year-old, has settled into a nervous pre-election routine. Each day, she checks the county website's tally of mailed ballots, monitors COVID infection numbers and scrolls the latest polls. That doesn't calm her nerves, so she centers herself behind her Steinway piano to play.
"I want my life back," she said. "I want to be able to have my evenings where we read and we watch frivolous TV shows and I don't have to listen to the news obsessively."
She, and other Democrats, said favorable polls for Biden bring back bad memories from Election night 2016, when they thought Hillary Clinton was cruising to victory then Trump eked out a win.
Back then, Meghan Iliesiu, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mother in Oakland County, Michigan, voted third-party. She never thought Trump would win. Now she believes he's made the country more hateful and divided.
She decided long ago to vote for any Democrat who ran against him, but her husband was still leaning toward voting third-party. They went out for a drive this summer, saw lots of Trump yard signs and he changed his mind. They both cast their ballots for Biden.
Now the wait is excruciating, Iliesiu said.
"I feel really helpless," she said. "Because I feel that there's just no good outcome. If Trump wins, that's the worst outcome. And if Biden wins, is the transition going to go smoothly? And what's going to happen with the approximately 50 percent of Americans who do vote for Trump?"
Trump at a recent debate declined to clearly condemn white supremacy.
As a Black woman, Charlotte Moss, 64, of Oakland County, Michigan, decided not to live in fear. She had become increasingly concerned about emboldened militant racist groups. It had once seemed outrageous that leaders would stoke racial tensions to pit Americans against each other, maybe even violently. But that doesn't seem so outrageous anymore, she said.
She had never owned a gun, but about a month ago, bought one. She took a class at the Detroit chapter of the National African American Gun Association. Chad King started the club in 2017, and it's grown to 210 members. In the weeks before the election, he scheduled two courses on deescalating tense situations. They sold out in three days.
"For the Black community, there are so many things at stake right now," said Linnea Pace, 57, in the Atlanta suburb Decatur. Trump, she believes, wants to erode civil rights measures and turn back the clock to a darker time.
She voted on the first day of early voting in Georgia.
Michelle McDonald got chills when she submitted her early ballot for Biden in Macomb County last week. As a Black woman, she hadn't experienced that sensation since voting for Barack Obama. It felt like that monumental of a moment.
She was anxious as she walked into the clerk's office, but as she walked out she felt something different: hope.
"I did my part," she said. "I have faith that no matter what happens things are going to get better. God has us all."