Voters dread election: ‘It’s going to be hell no matter what’

By Campbell Robertson

The cool breezes arrived a few weeks ago, coming in after a long summer of protest, illness and economic devastation. They brought a chilling reminder: Nov. 3 is almost here.

Brenton Davis has stocked up on guns and ammo. Kathy Faticia is considering leaving the country, mulling the options for dual citizenship. The morning that the United States learned the president had tested positive for a dangerous virus, Eric Hawes had the same sentiment about what lies ahead that he has had for weeks: “It’s going to be hell no matter what.”

Since 2016, when Erie County gave a slim majority of its votes to Donald Trump after years as a Democratic bastion, this slice of northwestern Pennsylvania has been seen as an especially precise gauge of the national political mood.

The United States is separated into two mutually distrustful political camps, but in Erie, the camps sit side by side — friends, neighbors and family members who live and work together yet cannot fathom why the others believe the way they do. These days, Erie is carpeted with campaign banners and signs, one yard often facing off against the next, a battle posture borne out by national surveys finding the highest share of Americans in decades — more than 4 in 5 — who believe the outcome of the election “really matters.”

But as the days lurch toward November, there is a remarkably bipartisan sentiment: dread.

“Just stick the knife in,” Marlay Shollenberger, 33, said of the looming election and all of the terrifying discord that could accompany it. “That’s kind of where I’m at.”

Already facing a resurgent virus and the growing toll of a pandemic economy, Americans are now looking with grim foreboding at the months ahead. The outcome of the vote itself, the claims of rampant voter fraud that Trump leveled during last week’s debate, the specter of a stolen election, the fear of violent clashes should the vote counting drag out — there is no limit to the bleak imagination.

The country woke up Friday to the news that the president had the coronavirus. By the evening, he was hospitalized. The grim developments have not stopped, even if there is a limit to how much the country can digest. About 7 in 10 Americans believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to a poll last month from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, a comparable percentage to four years ago. But now there is a sense of a country breaking down.

Hawes, 47, rues the day he sold off most of his guns. His unease about November is one of the few things that he and his stepfather, Tom Ulrich, 73, a die-hard Democrat, agree on regarding the election.

“There could be a lot of trouble on the streets,” Ulrich said. “Never mind the courts, I’m talking about on the streets.”

For Ulrich, a decorated Vietnam veteran who worked for more than three decades at the local General Electric plant, the stakes could not be higher. He sees Trump as openly hungering to become “a freaking dictator”; Joe Biden seems decent, Ulrich said, but he would “stand outside in a blizzard for 10 hours” to vote against this president, whoever the alternative was.

He is not alone in his sense of urgency. The county board of elections has sent out more than 45,000 requested mail-in ballots, 10,000 more than in the primary. And requests are still pouring in. The deadline to ask for a mail-in ballot does not arrive for more than three weeks.

Hawes agrees with his stepfather about the stakes. Like most other Trump backers, he believes his man will prevail. But he is pessimistic all the same.

“Right now we’re at a pivotal point,” he said. Now out of the service on disability, his military career curtailed by injuries in paratrooper training, Hawes holds strongly to his identity as a veteran, talking with veterans’ groups and keeping up with retired service members over Facebook. Many of them see a Biden win, he said, as the acceleration of a slow-moving “Marxist, socialist” coup that is being kept alive by left-wing protesters. “It’s scary,” he said, “it really is.”

Still, while father and son both fear catastrophe if their preferred candidate loses, neither is particularly hopeful about what lies ahead even if their candidate were to win.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” Hawes said. “I don’t believe that things are going to get better if Trump gets reelected.”

The question that troubles Hawes is whether the country is just too broken at this point to be fixed. This is the same question that is routinely raised among voters in Erie who believe that Trump is the one who broke it.

Down in Union City, a little town that has been drained over the years by factory and plant closures, a Biden campaign storefront opened in August. It was the first presidential campaign office to appear in town in a long time, if ever. Within two weeks, a Trump office opened up two doors down the block and huge Trump signs appeared all over the vacant warehouse across the street.

Kelly Chelton, 58, a volunteer at the Biden office, is on friendly terms with most of the people at the Trump office; one of her sons-in-law is a volunteer there. But she said threats and insults have been lobbed at fellow campaign workers over the last few weeks — a lot more tension in town than there ever was around a presidential race.

“I’m worried when the results come in,” Chelton said. “I’m worried they might get a little on the rowdy side.”

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