Michell Graves fears American democracy could be on the verge of collapse if President Trump loses. Her daughter, D’Avione Jordan, worries that violence awaits the country no matter who wins. Together, they cast ballots — Graves for Trump, Jordan for Democratic challenger Joe Biden — on Tuesday at a high school in Northern Virginia, two voters among millions across the Washington region who turned out to help choose the next president.

Some of those voters are exhausted and afraid. Others are angry, desperate or disillusioned. Eager to be heard, they are reluctant to see what future their voices will summon; many want change but are fearful of what lies beyond Nov. 3. Many of those who headed to the polls Tuesday — along with the more than 5 million who cast early ballots in the District, Maryland and Virginia — expressed an unfamiliar sense of foreboding about a presidential election unlike any other in living memory.

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Such dread is intense in the Washington region, where voters are both keenly attuned to national politics and dependent on the ongoing stability of the federal government for their economic well-being. On the streets of the nation’s capital, merchants have been boarding up their stores in anticipation of post-election chaos.

Jordan, a 21-year-old college student, has watched the plywood go up with fear for what the hours and days after the election will hold. She also fears what another four years of Trump could mean for the country — especially for Black people such as herself — and cast a ballot for Biden. So did her 18-year-old brother, another first-time presidential voter.

Their mother believes only Trump can safeguard the United States from menacing foreign powers such as China. And as a Black woman, Graves said, she takes a dim view of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris’s record as a prosecutor.

“If the wrong candidate gets in that house, it could cost us our America,” said Graves, 52.

Even before the votes were counted, some voters expressed a sense that the nation had lost something. In a country long riven by partisanship, the civic ritual of casting a ballot has always carried a sense of joy and patriotism. In past elections, those sentiments could prove fleeting. This year, they have all but been erased. Threats of violence, mistrust in the integrity of the election and a pandemic that has turned the act of voting into a physical risk have conjured a bleak Election Day mood.

Ahmad Mohibi, 31, was at Nationals Park shortly after 6 a.m. Tuesday waiting for the polls to open. A first-time voter who moved 10 years ago to the United States from Afghanistan, Mohibi said he is accustomed to the kind of instability and civil strife that can accompany a disputed election. Just not in the United States.

“I grew up in a foreign country, so I understand what happens when you have a contested election,” he said. “I don’t want this election to go that way.”

He was nervous about rioting after the results come in and advised friends to avoid downtown D.C. “Yesterday, I was walking the city. Everything is boarded up,” Mohibi said. “Years ago, when I moved to the United States, the first thing was safety. But when you see all these stores boarded up, I think that it’s really sad.”

Anthony Adams, 56, called Washington a “political powder keg” and said he was braced for turmoil after the polls closed. “I’ve always had the motto, ‘Prepare for the worst, hope for the best,’ and that’s kind of where I’m at right now,” Adams, a private security worker, said as he voted for Trump on Tuesday at Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington, Va.

Long lines were reported at some voting locations in Virginia and Maryland, but many polls across the region were quiet Tuesday morning. Elections officials speculated that an unprecedented wave of early voting may have thinned the lines on Election Day. In the District, Maryland and Virginia, ballots cast by mail or in person before Tuesday have soared past previous records and equaled about 74 percent of total turnout in the 2016 election.

“I’ve never seen it this empty in a presidential election,” said Andrew D’Abbraccio, a volunteer who was rubbing his arms to stay warm in the parking lot of an elementary school in Arlington. Another official at the station, Alan Swanson, stood inside the school’s gym, filled with masked volunteers and mostly empty, cardboard-encircled voting booths. Swanson sighed and adjusted his mask. “If it continues like this,” he said, “I’m going to start letting my volunteers take breaks.”

Maryland elections officials said 140,000 people had cast ballots statewide by 11 a.m. They reported a lone, minor incident at the polls: A voting center at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville opened 30 minutes late because election judges struggled to get electronic poll books up and running.

Across the region, voters have other decisions to make besides the choice between Trump and Biden.

In Virginia, several competitive House races are on the ballot, with Reps. Jennifer Wexton, Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria, moderate Democrats, seeking to defend districts they flipped from Republicans in 2018. Democrat Cameron Webb is also in a tight race with Republican Bob Good for the seat now occupied by Rep. Denver Riggleman (R) representing a historically conservative district in central and southern Virginia.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) is heavily favored to win reelection. Virginia voters will also decide on a state constitutional amendment that would overhaul the redistricting process.

In Norfolk, Clay Hanna, 42, said he would vote for former congressman Scott Taylor (R), who is seeking to reclaim his House seat from Luria. But he would not be voting straight Republican, opting for Biden — whom he praised as a moderate — instead of Trump.

“I think Biden is an honorable man,” said Hanna, who runs an auto-parts business. “I think he understands sacrifice and service. That’s a pretty big deal.”

In Maryland, House incumbents are expected to cruise to reelection, while voters are weighing the state’s entry into the sports gambling business. In the District, hard-fought D.C. Council races will be decided, as well as a much-watched ballot initiative that would decriminalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms.

Many voters on both sides of the political divide have come to view the contest between Trump and Biden in near-apocalyptic terms.

At Robious Elementary School in the Richmond suburbs, Dale Harvey — a nurse in her 40s — said she and her husband voted a straight Republican ticket “because we believe in the Constitution.” Thomas Elmore, a retired CIA and naval officer, had an equally passionate explanation of his straight Democratic vote: “I felt like it was a choice between democracy and fascism.”

Larry Fowler, a 78-year-old resident of the southwestern Virginia mill town of Fries who voted early, said he thinks a loss for Trump would be nothing short of a rejection of divine will.

“God put him in office. That’s what I think. And I believe He’s got more work for him to do,” he said. For decades, Fowler has watched jobs leave his hometown, followed by young people, a process he said Biden would accelerate.

“It just scares me to think in four years what our country could become,” he said. “We’d get a halfway socialist republic. This is the United States of America, not Russia.”

Vanessa Watkins, who showed up to cast a ballot at the main government building in Prince George’s County on Oct. 26 — the first day of in-person early voting in Maryland — sees the election in equally serious terms. But Watkins, 53, feared a different future: the one that could take shape if Trump is not repudiated.

She decided to vote in person, rather than by mail, because she thinks the lives of her four grandchildren hang in the balance. “Our people are dying,” said Watkins, who is Black. “We are not safe.”

Watkins has reasons for viewing this election’s backdrop in life-or-death terms: Her sister, she said, died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in New York. Trump could have done more to protect Americans from the coronavirus, she said.

“Hospitals were running out of beds. … They put bodies in trailers,” she said. “He hasn’t done nothing. He could’ve warned the people.”

Arriving at 9 a.m. at her polling place, she waited in line for about two hours. It was a good sign, she said: People cared enough to vote early, in large numbers and in person.

Despite their fears and uncertainties, voters in the Washington region — mirroring trends across the country — have shattered early-turnout records this year.

In Virginia, more than 2.7 million ballots were cast early — nearly five times the total early votes in 2016, according to state elections records. (Until this year, however, the state required residents to have a special justification for voting early.) The District saw more than 280,000 people cast their votes early, compared with just over 101,000 in 2016, according to the D.C. Board of Elections.

Maryland eclipsed its in-person early-voting records, with more than 940,000 people casting ballots that way by midafternoon Monday. Including returned mail-in ballots, 55 percent of the state’s 4.1 million eligible voters had cast their votes before Election Day.

On Tuesday, voters continued to stream into their polling places — some despite fears of the coronavirus. Jeannette Curtis, 57, had not planned to vote in person, because of the pandemic; she said she leaves her home only once every two weeks to buy groceries.

“That virus, they say it’s still killing people,” she said, “so I don’t come out.”

But she changed her mind out of concern that an absentee ballot might not be counted properly. On Tuesday, she cast her vote for Biden at the King Greenleaf Recreation Center in Southwest D.C.

It was clear that the pandemic had shaped the dynamics of this election in ways that went beyond voter turnout. For Haley Bridgwood, a 24-year-old Web designer, the virus that killed two of her grandparents was at the front of her mind as she cast a ballot Tuesday at a community center in Warrenton, Va. Later, she and other members of her family would also test positive.

“It’s a scary thing to catch it, and I’m lucky that I’m young,” she said. “But I know if I was older I wouldn’t be able to survive that — clearly, because it happened to my family. Bridgwood voted for Biden, believing that he would put in place more-effective measures to contain the virus and stimulate the economy.

Gregory Mason, a 55-year-old grocery store employee, cast his ballot at FedEx Field in Prince George’s County, Md., on Tuesday. Mason had continued working throughout the pandemic.

“I am so afraid I may bring it home to my family,” he said. “I wish I could stay home, but I’m responsible for my family and that is not an option.”

He voted for Biden, convinced that the country needs a change. The virus, economic collapse, nationwide protests — all have contributed to a sense of helplessness, he said, and he is not sure how much longer the country can survive it.

“A person can only take so much,” Mason said.

Rachel Chason, Ovetta Wiggins, Hannah Natanson, Jim Morrison, Tobi Raji, Rebecca Tan, Antonio Olivo, Erin Cox, Maya Smith, Michael Brice-Saddler, Julie Zauzmer, Aaron Schaffer and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.


An earlier version of this report misstated the number of early ballots cast in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. It is about 5 million.