American voters are fractured politically and culturally ahead of Election Day, and they are anxious about where their country is heading — on inflation, abortion, immigration, crime, and much more.
They also sense something more fundamental at stake at a time of rising mistrust of institutions and each other: the future of democracy.
Some Americans remain hopeful, but a fretful outlook emerges from interviews with more than two dozen Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated voters before Tuesday’s midterm elections — the first since followers of former President Donald Trump tried to halt the certification of President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.
These midterm elections are also the first since the Supreme Court took away a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, leaving the matter to states.
“This election is hugely consequential,” said Edward Foley, a professor at Ohio State University who directs its election-law program. “It’s a question of where our democracy is and how we are doing with our collective self-governance.”
Midterms are always important because a switch in control of the House or Senate can stunt the plans of a sitting president. Control of Congress could also affect various investigations into Trump, including his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection.
Dozens of statewide candidates have said the 2020 election was stolen; some running for positions that validate elections have refused to say if they will certify the 2024 results. And there are already more than 100 legal challenges against this year’s election.
The United States has stood at the precipice before. Not long after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, 11 states withdrew from the nation and the Civil War began.
Ultimately, Foley said, the election turns on a question: “Can we actually build the system and produce accurate, honest outcomes, and will enough people believe them?”
Here is a sampling of what voters had to say about democracy and other issues:
COLLEGE STUDENT ‘MOTIVATED TO CHANGE THINGS’
Brian Montes’ Mexican-born parents told him that America is “a shining city on a hill” and urged him to take his responsibility as a U.S. citizen seriously.
Montes, 21, is majoring in political science at Portland State University, and will vote this election for the second time in his life.
Montes was appalled to see election deniers attempt to overturn President Biden’s victory. For him, democracy is on the ballot this November.
“Protecting our democracy truly is … paramount. We can’t really fix climate change, we can’t, you know, help the health care system, we can’t bring relief to students across this country until we have faith in our democracy,” he said.
Montes, who is gay, also worries that political beliefs are now such a part of personal identity that it’s almost impossible to separate politics from hate.
In the past, someone on the other side of an issue simply had “a different perspective as to why or how we can better our country,” he said. “Now it’s whether or not somebody believes you have a right to be here, whether or not somebody believes you have a right to exist. And that is deeply personal.”
But as the first person in his family to vote, Montes is also optimistic in the long-term.
“Our generation is uniquely motivated to change things, to change the systems of now — because the systems of today are the biggest reason we find ourselves in this position,” he said.
ELECTION IS ABOUT ‘ECONOMY, FIRST AND FOREMOST’
Tony Bergida, a 27-year-old father from the Kansas City, Kan., suburb of Olathe, said pocketbook issues carry more weight for him in this election than abortion, transgender rights or the validity of the 2020 presidential election.
Bergida, the chair of the Kansas Young Republicans, cast his ballot in advance and picked Republican Amanda Adkins over the incumbent, Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids.
Democratic ads have focused on abortion protections but the election is “really going to be the economy, first and foremost,” said Bergida, who said his grocery bill has soared over the past two years.
“The cost of living has got to be on everyone’s minds right now.”
Bergida is also opposed to transgender athletes participating in girls’ sports, an issue that’s at play in the Kansas gubernatorial race.
Republicans seeking to keep Democratic incumbent Laura Kelly from a second term have attacked Kelly for vetoing two proposals to ban transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s school and college sports.
“It’s not fair, and it’s not safe for that to happen,” said Bergida, the father of a 2-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son and a former quarterback at Grinnell College in Iowa.
“I played sports and know what a locker room is like. Um, yeah, I’ve got a big problem with that.”
WORRIED ABOUT SOCIAL SECURITY, WEALTH DISPARITY
Cynthia Jones was severely injured at work more than a decade ago and has relied on Social Security disability benefits to help pay bills and hold on to the ranch-style house left by her father.
The Atlanta native sees a country split between haves and have nots. She doesn’t have health insurance that could pay for back surgery, but noted that members of Congress get access to health care and a pension. She worries that if Republicans take over Congress they will cut Social Security. (Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida has proposed a plan that would require Congress to adequately fund Social Security and Medicare or consider phasing them out.)
“If you’re poor, you don’t matter,” said the 64-year-old Democratic voter, who is pursuing a master’s degree to be a mental health counselor.
She was also motivated to vote this year by the false claim by Trump and other Republicans that the last presidential election was stolen. She views that lie as an attack on Black and other marginalized voters who cast ballots in large numbers in 2020.
“I feel like they’re trying to put us back on the plantation,” she said of the Republican Party.
That feeling is particularly hard for her. Her parents faced discrimination and financial hardship but were also able to save money and buy their own homes. She doesn’t want the country to backtrack on that progress.
“I don’t want to be not counted,” she said. “I don’t want to be seen as a third-class citizen. I don’t want anybody to feel that way.”
PUSHING FOR LATINO TURNOUT, GOOD GOVERNANCE
Ron Flores is a Republican retiree in his 70s who lives in a surf-friendly California beach community not far from the mostly Latino city of Santa Ana, where he lived as a child.
The son of a Mexican immigrant, Flores said he always had an interest in history and politics but didn’t act on it until more recently and last year formed the group “BASTA!,” which is aimed at encouraging Latinos to vote and promoting mostly — but not solely — politically conservative candidates.
“Are you honest? Are you going to do what we want you to do?” he asked. “I support good governance candidates and sometimes it’s on the left, but most of the time, it’s on my right.”
In California, there are measures on the ballot right now about online gambling and abortion. But Flores said there are bigger issues, like how much it costs to fill his car with gas and the rising price of nearly everything.
“That impacts me, number one,” said Flores, who said he raised six children and worked in product design and consulting.
For Congress, Flores said he’s fed up with progressives’ views on social issues so he’s voting for a Republican. But he isn’t thrilled about his choice.
“I’m going to go for the best of the worst,” he said, pinching his nose.
AFTER TRAGEDY, COMBATTING CRIME IS TOP OF MIND
Mary Elledge, 80, raised four children with her high school sweetheart in suburbs of Portland, Ore. In 1986, her life was upended when her only son, Rob, was brutally murdered in their home.
The registered Democrat has been laser-focused since then on the rights of murder victims and their loved ones.
Now, as homicides spike in Portland, Elledge is choosing the independent candidate in Oregon’s gubernatorial election. She feels Democrats have strayed too far to the left on public safety and it bothers her deeply.
“It isn’t safe to let your children outside without being able to know exactly where they are,” said Elledge, who has grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “What kind of a world are we bringing these children into?”
“I believe that being soft on crime is what’s caused a lot of this,” she said. “Anyone who wants to defund the police, I wouldn’t vote for them if they talk like that.”
Other than public safety, Elledge more neatly toes the Democratic Party line.
She believes in a woman’s right to an abortion and she’s “appalled” by former President Donald Trump.
Elledge, who has family members who are Trump supporters, said she struggled after her son’s murder to avoid descending into hatred and now sees a lesson in her own story for today’s polarized times.
“You have to agree not to agree,” Elledge said. “I think in all of this, we have to be careful that we don’t become angry with everything.”
TRANSGENDER DRAG PERFORMER FOCUSED ON ‘RIGHT TO EXIST’
It took Emma Scott Lavin most of her life to realize who she was, and she’s no longer willing to hide.
Lavin, a 49-year-old transgender drag performer, waded into a crowd of protesters last month outside a Drag Queen Storytime in Eugene, Ore.
She failed in her bid to engage with protesters and the incident increased her alarm as the far-right rallies around anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and advances legislative proposals in some states that would ban transgender girls and women from playing on female sports teams, from using female locker rooms or from accessing medical care for their transition.
“My right to exist is the biggest political issue for me right now,” said Lavin, a Democrat. “It’s on the ballot.”
“There may be a lot of people who see this and say, ‘This person, this person is everything that’s wrong with America right now,’” she said, gesturing to her red lipstick, red-and-black dress, stiletto red suede boots and wig.
“But my response to that is, ’If you already know who and what I am or you think you know, then how can you possibly learn anything from me? … If you believe that your religion tells you that you know everything and you know what other people are, then your religion is preventing you from learning and growing as a person.”
Lavin believes that America’s political system can’t survive because there is no longer any middle ground.
“It’s winner take all,” she said. “There are people in the LGBT community who probably have a more Republican-leaning sense of how the economy could work, but they can’t vote Republican because it’s a question of their own existence.”
OPTIMIST IS AGAINST ‘DEHUMANIZING THE OTHER SIDE’
The country’s deep political divisions leave Mark Riegel, a draftsman from Boyertown, Pa., feeling disappointed.
But the 38-year-old registered Republican considers himself an optimist and believes Americans can rebuild a greater sense of shared purpose.
The key, he says, is to interact more intentionally with others who are different, even as politicians fan polarization.
“We have to realize that the other side is not the enemy,” said Riegel. “We seem to be, like, becoming like children, infantilizing the other side, or dehumanizing the other side, or kind of saying that they’re evil. Certainly, they’re not evil. We just don’t agree with them.”
As Election Day approached, Riegel said he was leaning toward Democrats on the Pennsylvania ballot.
He doesn’t believe GOP Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz really cares about his adopted state of Pennsylvania, and he described GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano as “pro-life to the extreme,” too far right for his tastes.
Disavowing a politician because of their policy stance is OK. But when it comes to neighbors, a different approach is required.
“You can just go up and talk to people, face to face, shake their hand,” he said. “Do you care whether or not your cashier at Giant is a Democrat or Republican?”
SOCIAL WORKER LAMENTS ‘JUST TWO PARTIES’
Abi Suddarth has always opposed abortion. When she got pregnant in college, she knew she would keep the baby.
That decision dramatically altered her life, but the social worker from Kansas City, Kan., said that watching her son, now 7, grow up to be “as beautiful as he is, and smart, is the best thing I could have done.”
Opposition to abortion is one of the key values that drive her political views; support for creating a more inclusive society is another.
A naturalized citizen, Suddarth was born in Mexico and is outraged by Trump’s comments about immigrants. She believes he and his Republican supporters have stoked political divisions in the U.S.
“When you become a president, you’re not for one color skin,” she said, tearing up as she described how some of her social work clients complain about her accent. “You are governing everybody. Even the ones who did not vote for you, you still have a responsibility to them because they are still paying taxes.”
Suddarth – an unaffiliated voter — hasn’t decided yet how she will vote in a congressional race that pits Republican Amanda Adkins against the Democratic incumbent, Sharice Davids.
Suddarth often feels divided like this, she said.
“We need more than just two parties,” she said. “There is some elections (where) … you are like, ‘OK, so I have to make a choice and I have to vote. So which one is going to harm me the least?’” she added.
“Because it’s not even who is going to benefit me anymore.”
CONCERNED ABOUT FREE SPEECH, FAIR ELECTIONS
Jennifer Quade believes it is possible that “shenanigans” during the 2020 election helped President Biden defeat Trump, and she resents being labeled an “election denier” just for saying so.
“When you have a free society where people are free to have an exchange of ideas, that is a free society, that is a Republic, that is what our country is supposed to be,” said Quade, a 52-year-old Republican voter in Queen Anne’s County, Md.
Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president’s allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.
To Quade, a former nurse who now works in sales, it feels like big tech and media companies are working to silence, or at least marginalize, conservative voices.
Her idea for restoring everybody’s faith in America’s elections is to require a Republican and Democrat at every polling station “so they balance each other out.”
Aside from election integrity, Quade said some of the issues that matter most to her are reducing illegal immigration and the illegal drug trade.
The country, she said is “being destroyed from within.”
RETIRED ENGINEER CONTRASTS U.S. AND CHINA
As a naturalized U.S. citizen, Jerry Cheng doesn’t mind the rough-and-tumble of American politics. The retired mechanical engineer cherishes his ability to participate in democracy -– and especially his freedom to criticize politicians.
Those are things Cheng didn’t have in China, where he was born and spent most of his life before settling in Philadelphia for good three years ago.
“Because of the whole one-party dictatorship in China, one-party rule, you have nothing, you have no right to say ‘no.’ Always ‘yes, yes, yes,’” said Cheng, 66. “Here .. you have more choice.”
Cheng, a registered Democrat, acknowledged that deep political divisions are roiling his adopted country. But he said that is “part of the cost of democracy.”
“To criticize the government is necessary. Because the government always has the privileges,” he said.
Cheng doesn’t just talk about democracy, he lives it. He became involved in Asian American civic engagement for the first time this election. He educates people –- many of them older and native Chinese speakers -– about voting, how government works, and issues impacting the community.
“Nothing’s perfect, including the American system,” he said. “But compared to one-party dictatorship, it’s much better. At least it gives people some chance to do business, to campaign for a political position.”