Georgia voter anxiety at a high as election saga drags on

Fulton County election workers started counting and scanning ballots again on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2020, as the state and the nation waited for the results. Fulton County elections head Richard Barron said he expects results from the tens of thousands of outstanding absentee-by-mail ballots by 9 p.m. Wednesday. People across the nation are eagerly watching to see whether Fulton County, home to Atlanta, the South’s crown jewel, and 1 million residents can help former Vice President Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump. There were 63,000 outstanding Fulton absentee ballots, which is about 27% of Georgia’s 236,000 uncounted absentee ballots Wednesday morning. That was enough to keep the nation biting its nails and waiting on Fulton. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Fulton County election workers started counting and scanning ballots again on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2020, as the state and the nation waited for the results. Fulton County elections head Richard Barron said he expects results from the tens of thousands of outstanding absentee-by-mail ballots by 9 p.m. Wednesday. People across the nation are eagerly watching to see whether Fulton County, home to Atlanta, the South’s crown jewel, and 1 million residents can help former Vice President Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump. There were 63,000 outstanding Fulton absentee ballots, which is about 27% of Georgia’s 236,000 uncounted absentee ballots Wednesday morning. That was enough to keep the nation biting its nails and waiting on Fulton. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Hours before polls closed on Tuesday, the barricades were up at Centennial Olympic Park, the state Capitol and Atlanta City Hall. Local businesses had covered display windows with plywood and some observers noted an increase in police presence around the city.

It was all preparation for a night of potential unrest ignited by the presidential election, but the anticipated action didn’t play out on the streets of metro Atlanta. Instead, social media and private text threads became the demonstration destinations for many Georgia voters to express their anxiety as election night bled into election morning.

With many outstanding votes still to be counted in Georgia by Wednesday night, the end to the waiting and watching was nowhere in sight.

Bleary-eyed and weary, supporters of both candidates spent the day monitoring minute-by-minute tallies of battleground states including the one they call home and employing hefty doses of comfort food, alcohol, prayer, and positive thinking to keep them sane.

Meredith Williams of Sugar Hill prepared a Sour Cream Noodle Bake casserole Tuesday. Comfort food all the way.

But around 9 p.m., Williams' husband, Ken, knew it was not enough, so he surprised her with more comfort food to soothe election anxiety: onion dip and Ruffles potato chips.

“I told him ‘nicely played’,” said Williams, who is 39 and a project manager for an interior design company. “Better than flowers.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Meredith and Ken Williams relied on plenty of comfort food to get through Election Day. (Courtesy of Meredith Williams)

Meredith and Ken Williams relied on plenty of comfort food to get through Election Day. (Courtesy of Meredith Williams)

Combined ShapeCaption
Meredith and Ken Williams relied on plenty of comfort food to get through Election Day. (Courtesy of Meredith Williams)

Over the next several hours, Meredith and Ken Williams nervously watched election results trickle in. Meredith Williams clenched her teeth. She related to a magazine describing Election Day as feeling "like America is waiting for biopsy results.”

Jimmy Kimmel described it on Twitter as “this is like being awake during your own surgery.” And Stephen Colbert joked, “easily the most stressful National Sandwich Day in my lifetime.” But people were not in a joking mood Wednesday morning.

“The reason why we are feeling so anxious is that many people sense the country is utterly divided and polarized and the election results bear that out in some ways,” said Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University.

The anxiety we are feeling is driven by very real issues — racial divisions, a lethal virus, the shrinking economy — and President Donald Trump has not helped soothe those emotions, she said.

“One of the informal roles of the president is to act as comforter in chief,” Gillespie said. Reagan after The Challenger explosion. George Bush after 9/11. Obama after the Charleston shooting. “Presidents rise above partisanship to have the right words at the right time to comfort the American people. Trump has goosed up anxiety by using falsehoods and misleading information.”

With people already on edge and stressed by a pandemic, observers say the uncertainty of the presidential election makes a difficult situation even worse.

“With COVID-19, there is fear about who is going to get it, who is at risk, who might die from it? There’s all this fear and anxiety,” said Alyza Berman, an Atlanta psychotherapist. “And when you add the presidential election, 2020 is the year of catastrophe, anxiety, and fear of the unknown.”

Berman, who has clients across the political spectrum, said people are universally feeling uneasy about the days, weeks, months ahead.

“Whoever wins, there is going to be such a divide in this country,” she said. “Some of my clients are afraid to say who they voted for. They are afraid they could be judged or they could be yelled at. Once we were this nation where we were united as we stand, and now we are afraid of our neighbors.”

Berman said she can offer coping tips for her clients: try to get regular exercise, a good night’s sleep, limit time spent watching — and even talking about — the news. She recommends families set boundaries and spend time together — without talking about politics. But even she knows her limits as a therapist during these extraordinarily challenging times.

“I can help my clients with self-care and help them cope,” she said. “But I can’t guarantee them the world as we know it will be OK. Because I just don’t know.”

Keeping busy

Michael Sopko has been glued to the television watching returns. He said he always thought Trump would win in 2016 and doesn’t believe the 2020 polls that say otherwise.

“I don’t want to buy into the (idea) that the media is wrong or false but I think some of these media are trying to skew the election or results ... especially in swing states," said Sopko, an educator in DeKalb County.

“I am definitely feeling anxious,” he said Wednesday. “I want to see the results. I would like to see them counted as quickly as possible. I don’t necessarily care if (Joe) Biden wins. If he wins, then he wins. I would like to see the country really truly be healed and I think it can be healed under a Trump presidency."

Some voters spent election night preparing for the worst. Sherolyn Sellers was so concerned about the potential for election night unrest that she told her son, a college student in Alabama, to come hunker down with family at their home in DeKalb County.

Anxious about the level of division in the country, she made sure her family had an escape plan.

“We are sitting here on pins and needles. This should be a wake-up call for how divided this country is,” said Sellers, a small-business owner.

To preserve her sanity on election night, Sellers and her husband compromised. For every 10 minutes that he watched election results, they agreed she could change the channel and spend 10 minutes watching something else.

She filled her home with lilies and settled into a 24-hour text chain with a group of women friends who sent positive vibes and uplifting thoughts her way. “It made me breathe," Sellers said. "This sisterhood thing is amazing.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Kate Carpenter tried to stay busy on Election Day to stay calm. (Courtesy of Kate Carpenter)

Kate Carpenter tried to stay busy on Election Day to stay calm. (Courtesy of Kate Carpenter)

Combined ShapeCaption
Kate Carpenter tried to stay busy on Election Day to stay calm. (Courtesy of Kate Carpenter)

Kate Carpenter of west Atlanta did her best to stay busy Tuesday. She helped her children with online schooling, went to a golf driving range, and went to Costco to buy snacks to hand out to people in line at the polls. Later Tuesday, she was in constant texts with friends in battleground states, and nervously cleaned out a closet.

Combined ShapeCaption
Kate Carpenter bought snacks to hand out to people in line at the polls. (Courtesy of Kate Carpenter)

Kate Carpenter bought snacks to hand out to people in line at the polls. (Courtesy of Kate Carpenter)

Combined ShapeCaption
Kate Carpenter bought snacks to hand out to people in line at the polls. (Courtesy of Kate Carpenter)

But it was while running errands, that she was startled by the sight of boarded-up windows at a Target at Atlantic Station in Atlanta.

“It made me sad to see the state of the affairs,” said Carpenter, who voted for Biden. “I have never seen anything like that for a legitimate national election.”

Toni Moceri said on Wednesday she was feeling anxious about results coming in from swing states.

“I really try to look at it from a perspective of there is a due process,” said Moceri, 54, of Atlanta, who voted for Trump. While she would support a recount in the swing states, she doesn’t want to watch election results in real-time. “I can’t watch it. I can’t listen to it. I am doing other things to occupy my time. This is so crazy,” she said.

Meredith Williams voted for Biden, but said regardless of the final tally, the coming days will be a time of reflection and soul searching.

“I have a lot of sadness about what to do in my corner of the world,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about how I can get together with people who think differently. It seems like people can be pretty hateful and accusatory and I have to choose to assume the best of people around me who may think differently, and I want to think that people who think differently from me will do the same with me.”


HOW TO COPE

The American Psychological Association offers these tips for coping with stress related to the election.

  • Avoid dwelling on things you can’t control. When uncertainty strikes, many people immediately imagine worst-case scenarios. Break the habit of ruminating on bad outcomes.
  • Focus on what you can control. If following the news, watching the debates or scrolling through social media is causing you stress, limit your media consumption. Give yourself permission to take a break from the news. Consider setting boundaries such as deciding not to talk about politics during a meal with family or time with friends.
  • Engage in meaningful activities. Rather than fixating on news coverage, find an activity that you really enjoy and spend time doing it.
  • Stay socially connected. Go for a walk or spend time with friends and family. Research shows that people who have at least one or two friends or family members to turn to for emotional support during stressful times tend to cope better than people who don’t have such support.
  • Get exercise and stay active. Moving helps us release the energy we experience when we feel stressed.