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How Long are the US Elections Results Going to Take? Settle in to Wait

US Elections results may be delayed this time due to the coronavirus | Image credit: Reuters

US Elections results may be delayed this time due to the coronavirus | Image credit: Reuters

If the election generated that sort of distress in someone 3,000 miles away, how did actual Americans, marinating in a sea of collective angst, get through the day?

Hurray, Election Day! Not that the arrival of Nov. 3, after what has seemed like a 1,000-year campaign, felt like much consolation.

“The whole thing is just a gigantic nightmare,” said Robin Helmericks, a scientist who voted early with her 19-year-old daughter in Charleston, South Carolina, on Monday.

Or, as Ian Dunt, a British political journalist, said on Twitter: “There’s not enough booze in all the world for sitting through the American election results.”

If the election generated that sort of distress in someone 3,000 miles away, how did actual Americans, marinating in a sea of collective angst, get through the day? And: If there was no result Tuesday night, how will we hang on until there is?

“Patience,” exhorted the mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney, in an open letter urging the residents of his city to remain calm through Tuesday and beyond.

“After the polls close, and in the ensuing days, we will continue to need your patience,” he went on. “Never in the history of this city have so many people voted by mail. By law, staffers are not allowed to start opening and counting these ballots until Election Day itself.”

Kenney noted that the results in Pennsylvania — and, by extension, the rest of the country — might not be known for a while. That’s the message election officials everywhere have been trying to emphasize, as they cope with the pandemic reality of a record number of mail-in ballots.

“This has been the slow-moving election from hell with all the early voting,” Drew McKissick, chair of South Carolina’s Republican Party, said on Monday, eagerly anticipating its end. “It’s been draining.

The overriding prediction was that getting through this election will indeed take patience, although it’s anyone’s guess for how long. (How long is a piece of string? Sometimes, in the run-up to Tuesday it felt as if the country was playing a brutal, penalty-filled soccer game that would clearly go into extra time — but we didn't yet know how long that extra period would last.)

The specter of civil unrest loomed large in the mind of voters like Paulino Leon, 70, a Tucson, Arizona, voter who identifies as an independent. On Tuesday, he said he was confident of a Joe Biden victory, but was not sure that President Donald Trump would accept the results.

“I bought canned food and have things set up in my house so I can stay there for at least two months,” he said. “And I’ve got my guns.”

Stationed outside a polling station in Atlanta’s historically Black West End neighborhood so that he could help direct residents of a local senior center to their proper polling place at a nearby library, Mark Robinson, 55, noticed two things in the parking lot: a big, gray-black Dodge Ram pickup truck festooned with flags and operated by a driver who exited the lot after being spotted, and a Chevrolet Suburban occupied by an agent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, there to ensure that the voting ran smoothly.

Robinson said he felt as if violence was “almost assured” in America on Election Day. “I don’t think I’m being pessimistic,” he said, referring to Trump’s recent comments about the far-right Proud Boys group. “I mean, the president said ‘Stand back and stand by,’” he said. “I’m presuming that’s what they’re doing.”

In Minneapolis, Justin Salz, 41, said he planned to vote for Trump, despite finding the president too brash and tweet-happy. He also said his plan was to vote and then “go dark” — order takeout sushi with his family, go to bed without watching the news and check the results in the morning.

That seemed to be the smart approach. According to Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, anticipatory dread only increases as waiting continues.

“Quite a lot of research suggests that the worst is yet to come as far as anxiety,” said Sweeny, who specializes in the psychology of waiting.

“Even people who are general optimists show a decline in optimism as the moment of truth draws nearer,” Sweeny said.

Contributing to the current difficulty is that no one seemed able to predict when this nirvanic (or hellish, depending) “moment of truth” might actually arrive. That left people fretting and obsessing even more, particularly about the direction they see the country going in.

Michael Miller, director and co-founder of the New York Meditation Center, said it was important not to play out unpleasant situations in one’s head.

“This whole season has been focused on speculating about what is going to happen,” he said. “But getting caught up in the moment-by-moment question of what results are coming in — that has never been good practice.”

Stay in the present, he counseled. Clean your oven, rake some leaves, go for a walk, take off your shoes, feel the carpet on your feet. Breathe.

“If you think, ‘Don’t think about the election, don’t think about the election, don’t think about the election,’ then the election has become your mantra,” he said, “and that’s not going to do you any good.”

All day, officials exhorted the public to stay calm and not to expect a result too quickly.

In a joint statement, officials from a disparate coalition of groups — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the National Association of Evangelicals; the AFL-CIO; and the National African American Clergy Network — implored people to wait peacefully until every last vote had been counted.

“With voting ending today, it is imperative that election officials be given the space and time to count every vote in accordance with applicable laws,” the statement said. “We call on the media, the candidates and the American people to exercise patience with the process and trust in our system, even if it requires more time than usual.

“It is important to remember that challenges are a normal part of every election,” the statement read. “We are confident our country and its institutions can rise to this historic moment.”

Good luck along the way. “What is the German word for ‘feeling physically nauseous from anxiety at the news but also morbidly unable to look away and stop scrolling?” novelist Celeste Ng wrote on Twitter.

Sarah Lyall c.2020 The New York Times Company


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