Distance defined the day.
The space that separated Americans became the metaphor for Election Day 2020, the gaps we Americans cannot close the windows through which we view ourselves and our nation.
Early in the morning, I walked the half-mile from my home to my polling place. The app predicting wait times said I’d have to stand in line for 75 minutes to cast my ballot.
In fact, I was in and out in 10. It was an omen of things to come, a warning that early projections would be misleading, that anticipated big numbers would dwindle and, sometimes, disappear.
As I waited to vote, I saw that everyone in line maintained the requisite six feet of social distance – and sometimes more. I bumped into neighbors, friends and acquaintances. We stood apart from each other, masks covering our faces, careful not to talk about politics on this most political of days.
After I’d strolled home, ballot cast, I filled my day, as I always do on election days, with errands – doctors’ visits, grocery runs, grading papers.
As evening came, like millions of other Americans, I settled in to watch the returns come in.
For decades – all my adult life, in fact – elections have been communal affairs.
Many I spent in a newsroom that smelled of nervous sweat and cold pizza, working beside other journalists trying to weave myriad and often contradictory numbers into something that resembled a comprehensible narrative. Other times, I was a shoe-leather reporter, moving among party gatherings, taking notes as candidates delivered their victory or concession speeches, attempting to record the last moments of efforts that had consumed months, even years, of people’s lives.
Four years ago, I shlepped back and forth between the Republican and Democratic gatherings in downtown Indianapolis. In many ways, election night 2016 was the bookend to this year’s tally.
I arrived first at the Republican gathering, where the mood early was one of funereal resignation. The party regulars I talked with, off the record, spoke of rebuilding, of starting over.
Over at the Democrats’ party, something just short of giddiness filled the room. Those gathered figured Evan Bayh would lose the U.S. Senate race, but that gubernatorial candidate John Gregg and Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz would come out on top.
The night wore on.
Donald Trump won the presidency. Eric Holcomb captured the governor’s race. Jennifer McCormick claimed the superintendent’s seat.
When I traipsed back over to the Republicans’ shindig, I found ties loosened, drinks poured, smiles widened. The day had broken their way. It was time to party.
I did one last walk-through at the Democrats’ event. The hall was all but abandoned. The few people who lingered there were weeping into their steins.
Flash four years forward.
In 2020, the party gatherings for all but the terminally careless were virtual.
Like most of America, I tracked the results in the confines of my own home, cut off from neighbors, friends, co-workers.
This election was like most elections, almost designed to mislead. Early leads that seemed formidable, even overwhelming, faded to nothing and then reversed themselves.
At one point, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden had a big advantage in Florida and Republican President Donald Trump held a huge edge in Virginia.
But the night wore on.
Trump won Florida. Biden won Virginia.
America settled in for the political equivalent of siege warfare, as a handful of battleground states went through the grinding process of opening absentee and mail-in ballots. It was a moment fraught with tension.
The president added to it. In the wee hours, his early leads in several states wilting in the heat of ongoing counting, he stepped in front of the cameras to demand that the tallying end in all states where he was ahead and continue where he was behind.
His was a move calculated to intensify American animosities – to convince half the nation that the election’s result, however it might turn out, will be illegitimate.
As we Americans watched the tallying and tabulations of our voices and votes, it became clear that our leader once again would be chosen by the thinnest of margins.
And the gulfs dividing us were widening with every tick of the clock.