Election Day was once an American celebration of self-government. In cities, voters cocooned in booths flipped levers to make their choices. In villages, they lined up at the local firehouse to cast ballots that were hand-counted under the watchful bifocals of elderly town clerks.

There were house parties and political gatherings at the ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel, in downtown Providence,, where weary politicians and hangers-on toasted victory or drowned sorrows in defeat. Nobody thought that end times were nigh if the other party’s candidates won.

Goodbye to all that. Nobody believes that tomorrow --and perhaps the days after-- will resemble Teddy White’s nostalgic “Making of the President’’ books, full of novelistic anecdotes and the romance of a free people devoting one day to choosing their future.

In this year of pandemic, politics has become both blood sport and performance art. Caustic campaigns aren’t new, but now they are freighted with nasty messages and anonymous screeds on social media. Foreign troublemakers spread false narratives online. Some of us no longer speak to those we don’t don’t agree with. Too many believe that an apocalypse is coming if their candidate loses.

More than half the ballots have been cast. The police are on alert from sea to shining sea amid fear of civic unrest in a nation with more guns than any other country. Too many don’t trust government election officials to correctly count the vote. 

Welcome to this new political abnormality. One emotion that is in short supply these days should be at the forefront. That’s patience. Voters, and particularly the media, need to recognize that we may not know the outcome by bedtime tomorrow night. The flood of mail ballots means that it will take longer for results. This doesn’t mean cherry bombs are being set off in drop boxes or that tabulations are suffused with fraud or other shenanigans. 

Elections have long been the province of localism. From Providence to Pasadena, the laws differ widely. Some states and counties have already begun to tally mail ballots, while others don’t begin that count until polls close. For instance, Ohio and Florida are allowed to pre-process mail votes before tomorrow, while Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are not.

And no election is certified on election night.

For political reporters, election night is the Super Bowl. We love to be first with the score and post-game analysis. Mostly this is benign; if we were wrong, well, so what, we just looked stupid. And protestors didn't rally in the streets in 1994, when WJAR television mistakenly crowned Democrat Myrth York Rhode Island governor in a contest won by Republican Linc Almond. 

The 2000 presidential campaign left the national networks with egg dripping on their faces after wrong predictions of the Florida results. The country was without a president-elect for more than a month, but American life cruised along. Democrats weren’t pleased when the Supreme Court gave Republican George W. Bush the presidency in a narrow 5-4 opinion, but they didn’t shut down highways. 

Now a weary and anxious country needs to avoid panic. If you haven’t voted yet, you can still do so today at your town or city hall. If you have done a mail ballot put it in a drop box to ensure that it gets counted. Everything you need to know can be found online at Vote.ri.gov or at sec.state.ma.us in Massachusetts. Polls in both states close at 8 p.m. Remember to bring your ID and a mask.

You can get results here at Thepublicsradio.org. There is no paywall and tallies from across the nation will be displayed. We’ll be on air beginning at 7 p.m. with national and local results and analysis.

American democracy was once the world’s envy. We held elections during wars, depressions and, yes, pandemics. No tanks were in the streets when governments changed. The voting booth has long been the one place in our nation’s life where prince and pauper were equal. 

Let’s all take a deep breath and do our part tomorrow to ensure that the elegant and simple majesty of our participatory democracy endures.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon.