NEW ORLEANS - Facing the most challenging voting conditions in modern history, Americans are answering democracy’s call with grit and determination as the hours tick closer to Election Day.
Abigail Zeitlin has always taken voting seriously.
“I’m a lawyer, and my parents are immigrants from the [former] Soviet Union,” she told VOA, “so the underpinnings of American democratic institutions are something I hold sacred. This election in particular feels historic.”
Her resolve has been put to the test, however, as casting a ballot during a deadly global pandemic is full of challenges.
Zeitlin is registered to vote in Arizona, a battleground state in the contest between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden. But she has been staying with friends in California while waiting for a new job to begin.
“My plan was to mail my ballot,” Zeitlin said, “but that process has been a disaster.”
Delays in receiving an absentee ballot forced a difficult decision: return to Arizona or forego voting entirely.
“I was nervous to fly during a pandemic and I wasn’t thrilled about the financial cost, but I bought a plane ticket and a hotel room, and I flew to Arizona to vote,” she said. “This election is too important to skip.”
Overcoming fear and gloom
Millions of Americans are casting ballots in unfamiliar ways during a global pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 Americans and is infecting tens of thousands more each day, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. More than 95 million Americans are estimated to have cast ballots ahead of Election Day, more than two-thirds of the total recorded in the 2016 presidential election.
Gloomy headlines extend beyond the pandemic as America endures an era of hyper-partisanship, a surge in natural disasters and unrest on American streets. At a time when events seem to be spinning out of control, Americans seem especially eager to strike a blow for self-determination.
“I waited for nearly five hours on the first day of early voting,” said Katie Faivre, a teacher from New York and a supporter of Biden, the Democratic nominee. “We’re choosing leaders who will represent Americans of every gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic level and race. I would have waited as long as it took to vote. This is an historic election.”
American University political historian Allan Lichtman said 2020 is not the first time a U.S. election is taking place under challenging circumstances.
He said Americans voted in the midst of the Civil War in 1864, during the worst of the Great Depression in 1932, in 1944 during World War II and in 1968 as social unrest over racial inequality and the Vietnam War raged through American society.
Lichtman said calling an election “the most important” of one’s time is usually overblown. But he adds that 2020 may be the exception.
“Climate change is an immediate and existential threat to humanity’s survival on this planet,” he warned. “It’s not theoretical. Look at the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, the record temperatures and droughts in the Southwest and the fires across the West.”
Lichtman sees record early voting as a hopeful sign.
“Abraham Lincoln was reported to have said the best way to predict your future is to choose it,” Lichtman recalled. “That’s what we might be seeing in this high turnout.”
Participation beyond voting
Voting isn’t the only way Americans are taking part in democracy. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, more women - and women of color - are running for office than ever before.
“I always said I’d never get into politics because of how dirty and grimy it seemed,” explained Angel Harris, who is running for judge of a criminal court in New Orleans.
Harris said judicial positions are typically occupied by former prosecutors. In New Orleans a group of former and current public defenders have decided to run for local judicial positions in a quest to make the city’s courts fairer.
“We’ve been hearing the same complaints about the courts for decades,” she said. “We always say, ‘This has got to change!’ but nothing does.”
Inspired by women of color she saw run for office over the past two years, Harris is embracing politics as an avenue for change.
“You see all of these people engaged. Whether it’s protesters, voters or candidates – people don’t want to be locked out of the process anymore.”
While many voters profess excitement about the candidate they support, many others say they are motivated more by a strong distaste for the candidate they oppose. A 2019 Harvard University study documented a decadeslong increase in American voters’ dislike and distrust of the other party.
Jeff Williams is a lawyer in Indiana who said he will be voting for Trump on Tuesday. He said Democrats appear more focused on being “against Trump” than communicating their own policies.
“I have a young son with medical issues, and I’m worried about the cost of health care going way up if the far left wins,” Williams said. “I’m also worried about the economy. Biden and the left ... want us to go into a cave until the virus is gone. But it’s bad for our kids’ health, our mental health and for the economy.”
For some, a deep distrust of the other side sparks fears the candidate they oppose will try to steal the election. Some Democrats accuse Republicans of suppressing the vote and seeking the elimination of ballots cast in minority districts. Some Republicans believe Democrats will benefit from voter fraud during record-high use of mail-in voting.
Fears have grown of an election result viewed as illegitimate by roughly half the nation, possibly accompanied by rioting and violence.
“We haven’t had a president in modern history who has talked about stealing an election the way Donald Trump has,” said Phillip Truex, a Biden voter from Georgia.
Truex has diabetes and requires regular medical care to maintain his sight. A freelance musician, he hasn’t had steady work since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“My health care is on the chopping block if Trump wins again, and that means I could go blind,” he said. “I don’t want to see violence on election day, but this is my life.”
Truex added, “This election is about a lot of peoples’ lives.”