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America's challenge on election night and beyond

This combination of pictures created on October 30,

This combination of pictures created on October 30, 2020 shows Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden in Dallas, Pennsylvania, and President Donald Trump in Gastonia, North Carolina. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/ANGELA WEISS

All day Election Day people waited. They waited to vote, they waited for polls to close, they waited for results.

We’re all going to have to wait a bit longer for definitive results.

Determining winners in the presidential election, the battle to control the U.S. Senate and key Long Island congressional races are intricate dances this year. Past experience, perhaps most obviously from the 2000 presidential election, illustrates the wisdom in being deliberate and certain before calling a race. The extraordinary number of absentee ballots and early voters have complicated the counting. Trust the process and wait for the results.

But in the early morning hours Wednesday, President Donald Trump already was sowing doubt, first tweeting: "We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election." Twitter marked the tweet as potentially misleading. But it’s more than misleading. It’s dangerous and wrong.

Then it got worse. When Trump spoke from the White House, he lied, outrageously and irresponsibly telling the American people that he had won the election, that the proper counting of votes was "a fraud." But no one has won the election and millions of votes have yet to be counted. And, despite what Trump suggested, those who voted for former Vice President Joe Biden did not "disenfranchise" those who voted for Trump.

The process works. Votes are still being counted. Trump has dangerously challenged the very heart of our democratic process. He may win the final tally but he can't decree himself the winner.

Biden emerged with a very different message, noting rightly that, "It’s not my place or Donald Trump’s place to declare who’s won this election. That’s the decision of the American people."

Indeed it is. Throughout the evening Tuesday, major news organizations were cautious before making calls. But some conclusions became clear. Turnout was high, which was welcome news everywhere. But the presidential election wasn’t going to be a landslide. It seemed Trump was doing better than expected among older Hispanic voters, although it pays to be cautious about making broad conclusions about ethnic groups, especially ones with many distinct characteristics. And predictions and polling could turn out to be off.

Meanwhile, locally, it seemed GOP turnout was strong. But we won’t know much until absentee ballots are counted, and that won’t start until next week.

It pays to be certain

It now looks like the presidential race could come down to Midwest states where final counts could take several more days. Despite Trump’s wrongheaded rhetoric, we must be patient. The uncertainty comes as more than 100 million votes were cast via absentee ballots and early voting, particularly because many people did not want to go to the polls during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some states did not begin processing those ballots until Election Day, and others accept ballots postmarked by Election Day that arrive afterward.

The nation needs calm and certainty. We have spent four years swinging wildly from crisis to crisis, and the frightening day-to-day unpredictability has left us in a vulnerable state, no matter what side of the aisle we may each lean toward.

Trump's horrifying reaction exacerbates an already precarious situation. But the peaceful day of voting Tuesday bodes well for the American people's reaction. Once the outcome is certain, we must find a way forward as Americans.

That’s far easier said than done. The enormous problems we face — income inequality, climate change, a troubled economy, racial inequity and, perhaps most acutely, the coronavirus pandemic, to name a few — won’t be solved in a nation that’s wracked by divisiveness, hate, and violence.

The time will come

There will come a moment with definitive winners, and our focus will shift. If Biden wins this election, Trump must do what every president has done before him, and pave the way for a smooth, appropriate path for Biden to take his seat in the Oval Office. If Trump secures a second term, the result must be acknowledged as well.

Our divisions will not disappear on Wednesday, or later this week, next month, or even next year. It took time for this country to tear apart as it has, and it will take time to put it back together. That task can’t be left only to the man in the Oval Office. Each of us must do our part.

In the meantime, the nation must show patience. When the counting is done, we’ll know who will lead us — and we’ll then be able to prepare for what’s next.

— The editorial board