Anxiety 2020: Voters worry about safety at the polls

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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, stands in line to cast his early vote at the Park Slope Armory YMCA, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The mayor waited over three hours in line to cast his vote. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

WASHINGTON – Gary Kauffman says he does not scare easily. So when men waving President Donald Trump flags drive by his house in downtown Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he stands on his front steps and waves a banner for Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

“Sometimes I yell at them. They yell back at me,” says Kauffman, 54.

Still, Kauffman is keeping a closer eye on who they are and what they're carrying as Election Day approaches. Tension has been rising in his town, known best as hallowed ground of the Civil War's bloodiest battle. Recently, it’s become a hot spot of angry confrontations between Trump supporters and liberal protesters. Kauffman has seen some of the Trump supporters carrying weapons.

“If there’s guns, I’m a bit more cautious,” he said on Monday.

Americans aren’t accustomed to worrying about violence or safety ahead of an election. It’s a luxury afforded by years of largely peaceful voting, a recent history of fairly orderly displays of democracy. But after months filled with disease, disruption and unrest, Americans are worried that Election Day could become a flashpoint.

With Election Day next week, voters can point to plenty of evidence behind the anxiety. More than 226,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the United States, and cases are spiking across the country. A summer of protests of racial injustice and sometimes violent confrontations has left many on edge. Gun sales have broken records. Trump has called on supporters to monitor voting and has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power or to explicitly condemn a white supremacist group.

There was the alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and another spate of violent protest this week over a police shooting of a Black man in Philadelphia.

“Human beings don’t do well with uncertainty, and there’s been a lot of uncertainty this year,” said Mara Suttmann-Lea, an assistant professor of government at Connecticut College conducting research on voting. ”Absolutely I’m seeing heightened levels of anxiety ... and it's a more general, existential anxiety — ‘What is the state of our democracy?’"