The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Election Day drags into Election Week, the waiting is the hardest part

On election night, supporters of Joe Biden wait in their car outside the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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The rhetoric, on the streets and in the White House, has gone triple exclamation point, with shouts about stolen elections and all manner of imagined shenanigans. Tense gatherings of partisans outside — and even inside — vote-counting centers threaten to get physical. And in millions of homes across the country, a gnawing impatience is eating away at what’s left of American nerves.

Wait, says Joe Biden’s camp — just count the votes. Wait, say President Trump’s allies — let the courts decide. Wait, say elections officials: We’re working as fast as we can.

But many Americans have had it with waiting. Waiting for the all-clear to go back to work and school. Waiting for the vaccine. Waiting for a decision on the country’s future. The message from people across the political and cultural divide is united, for once: It’s too much.

Now, as Election Day — one of the country’s grandest instant gratification traditions — stretches into a third day and a fourth day and who knows how many more, many people just want it to stop.

The impatience is contributing to some curious scenes. On Wednesday, Trump supporters in Michigan, where Biden was leading, chanted, “Stop the count!” while Trump supporters in Arizona, where the president was trailing, chanted, “Count the votes!” On Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, a man watching anti-Trump marchers as they shouted, “Count every vote,” reared back and delivered his own retort: “They’re counting, you idiots!”

“This is kind of like an acid flashback,” said Jean Elliott Brown, who should know: Twenty years ago, in South Florida, she spent day after day recounting ballots in the 2000 version of this week’s nail-biter election extension. In an elections office in West Palm Beach back then, Brown, a Democrat, sat alongside Republican observers and county employees, lifting up individual ballots to figure out whether each voter intended to choose George W. Bush or Al Gore as president.

“It was such a distressing time,” recalled Brown, now retired in New Hampshire. “There was intimidation, suppression, bullying and a challenge over nothing. It was like a rehearsal for right now.”

The waiting is worse than the wanting, some voters say. And Americans in particular are an impatient bunch, according to psychologists who study patience and self-control.

“Americans have a hard time waiting,” said Dominik Guess, a psychology professor at the University of North Florida. “Immediate gratification is an important part of our culture. Children are taught to expect things right away. And it’s especially hard to wait when something is highly important and we’ve invested our values in it.”

Guess has studied differences in patience across cultures and has found that people in highly individualistic societies such as the United States have more trouble waiting than people who grew up in collectivist cultures that put more emphasis on teaching children to wait for rewards.

Anxiety over the wait has brought hardcore partisans on both sides into the streets. In Durham, N.C., on Wednesday, about a thousand anti-Trump demonstrators accompanied by a drum corps marched to the local elections board to demand that every vote be counted.

“My people know patience,” said Rabbi Salem Pearce, executive director of Carolina Jews for Justice. “We wandered in the desert for 40 years. We can wait a few days for election results.”

But many people say they are losing sleep, unable to work or falling into stress-eating to get through to a final result.

“We have lost some of our capacity to wait,” said Sarah Schnitker, a psychologist at Baylor University who studies patience. “A lot of waiting is about expectations, and, with new technologies, our expectations have definitely changed about how much uncertainty we should have to tolerate.”

That website is supposed to load instantly. That answer should be in the first page of search results. And that election is supposed to end on Election Day.

The pandemic has left patience in even shorter supply, Schnitker said. “This whole year, our expectations have been violated. About how science works and how quickly we should be able to solve the virus. And now the election on top of that.”

Impatience, Schnitker said, can arise from interpersonal stressors, such as an annoying person at work; from life hardships, such as chronic illness or racism; or from daily hassles, such as being stuck in traffic or waiting in a queue.

The delayed election result “is a mixture of all three categories,” she said. “It’s quite interpersonal — a lot of us have people in our lives who we argue over politics with. Political decisions are life and death to us — very basic life hardships. And this also feels like a daily hassle, waiting for the next update every hour.”

The trick to getting more comfortable with the wait is to figure out what you’re feeling, think about how other people see the same situation, and understand why you care so much about this, Schnitker said.

“Don’t just sit there and stew,” she said. “Imagine the situation in a new way. Americans can call upon our care for our country and think about how to help it live up to our ideals. And do something that puts you in a flow state — absorbing work, a hobby, meditation, a challenging video game. Watching TV does not get you there.”

Even in an impatient culture, some people are better at waiting than others — and those who are confident that their guy is going to prevail are having a somewhat easier time of it this week. Those who have been through this before say the final result can be worth the wait.

As much as Brown shudders to recall that fall of 2000, Brad Card, who was on the other side of the Florida recount, said the seemingly never-ending Bush-Gore faceoff “made me proud to be an American.”

“We have a peaceful process where you can challenge votes, and you let the process work, and then you have a winner,” he said. “We’re an incredibly resilient country, and I was amazed how quickly we were able to move on from that bitter and divisive process.”

Card, now a Washington lobbyist but then a Republican observer of vote recounts in Jacksonville and West Palm Beach, said he doesn’t mind waiting as long as it takes to get every vote counted this time. But he has enough PTSD from 2000 to argue that there should be some limits.

“I don’t think we should subject the country to prolonged litigation just to muck up the system,” Card said. “When the decision is final, the loser should accept it and respect it. I don’t know if President Trump would do that — I hope so — but Al Gore really set the tone, walking away and helping America heal after being as close as you can be to the presidency.”

Biden’s lead in the last remaining battlegrounds could be large enough to avert the painstaking examination of individual ballots that dominated TV screens that November.

As the 2000 wait stretched into its fourth week, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote that it was “so horrible, so dreadful, so terrible, and yet you can’t look away. . . . It’s ‘The Florida Chain Saw Election.’ ” A month into the count, a CNN poll found that 62 percent of Americans agreed that the whole mess had “gone on too long.”

Richard B. Cheney, who was waiting to become either vice president or nothing, told reporters in the midst of the wait that all he did was “sit around and watch television all day.” And then he had a heart attack, his fourth, a mild one.

“Sometimes, there’s just too damn much news,” Cheney said.

The country was different in those days. Gore and Bush were able to seclude themselves at home, refraining from public comment for days on end.

Similarly, in 1960, when the presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon also turned out to be a nail-biter, Nixon decided on the morning after Election Day to quit his Los Angeles campaign headquarters and fly to Key Biscayne, Fla., leaving his allies in Washington to spend their days hollering on his behalf about election fraud while he took long walks on the beach.

Biden has gone on TV twice to express his confidence that he will prevail, and Trump has kept up a rapid-fire assault of tweets alleging fraud without evidence. In a blast email seeking donations to his legal campaign to stop vote counts in several states, Trump, who has described himself as an impatient man, said: “The Democrats are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. They will try to drag this Election out for as long as possible.”

The candidates and their staffs at least have jobs to do while they wait. For many voters stuck at home during the pandemic, the wait feels like a wrong turn into purgatory.

“Is this what it’s like to watch/care about sports?” tweeted novelist Taffy Brodesser-Akner. “If so, why would you ever do it on purpose?”

Shayna Jacobs in New York and Barry Yeoman in Durham, N.C. contributed to this report.