PITTSBURGH — At 8:50 on Friday morning, the city of Philadelphia updated its vote tally, nudging Joseph R. Biden Jr. past Donald J. Trump in the state of Pennsylvania. The question on everyone’s mind for several interminable days immediately shifted: not ‘‘if” but “when.” The election — this tense, angry, virus-plagued and exhausting election — would soon be over.
“We’re celebrating everybody’s right to vote,” said Bernadette Golarz, 36, amid the impromptu street party that broke out on Friday in front of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where ballots were still being counted inside. “And the fact that we all showed up to put him out.”
The country has waited three nerve-racking days for news of a definite outcome. All that time, the nation’s fate has been cast, just not yet fully known, as local election offices scattered across a handful of states counted the crucial remaining ballots. Voters of both parties have stayed up late and woken up early, praying, hoping, refreshing feeds and staring at maps on the TV that never seemed to change.
“What is happening now is what I thought was going to happen,” said Rosemary Gabriel, 51, who moved from Nigeria 19 years ago to the Atlanta suburbs where she now lives and works, “because I still have faith in the American people.”
For all that confidence in the outcome, though, she had been glued to the TV all week. “I’ve had four hours of sleep,” she said.
As the tally tediously proceeded, the president falsely declared victory and raged about conspiracy, one of his sons urged “total war” over the election, his campaign’s lawyers filed a squall of lawsuits, and crowds of supporters took to the streets demanding that election officials stop counting or keep counting depending on where they were.
“I feel like things are being yanked from underneath me,” said Joel Medina, 44, a businessman from Rowlett, Texas, who cast the first vote in his life on Tuesday for Mr. Trump. He had not ruled out that Mr. Trump would eventually come out on top.
Still, even some of those with deep suspicions about the election had resigned themselves to a Biden victory. It was proof, as they saw it, that in the end the swamp always wins.
“I’ll never forget it, they were so shocked when he got elected,” recalled Kim Anzelmi, 55, of Scranton, Pa., who had assumed politics to be irredeemably rigged until the night Mr. Trump won in November 2016. That election had changed her mind about the system and what was possible — briefly. Now she is as cynical about it as ever. “Politics has been crooked since the Romans,” she said.
But Dolores Selico, who cast a ballot for Mr. Biden on Tuesday in a high school gymnasium in South Los Angeles, was confident that whatever would transpire would be “God’s will.”
When Ms. Selico voted, she wore a T-shirt bearing the face of John Lewis, the late civil rights pioneer. It was a way to honor “what our ancestors went through so we could vote,” said Ms. Selico, a Black woman who is 80 years old.
Shanna Davidson, a social worker in Louisville, Ky., who also backed Mr. Biden, had seen enough to feel relief.
“Today’s a good day,” she said. Still, she recognized that tens of millions of Americans voted differently from her, and would be as dejected as she was now invigorated. The election appeared so close when she woke up on Wednesday morning, she said, that “I about had a nervous breakdown.”
This was the thing, though. In this strange and ongoing limbo of an uncalled election, there was still plenty of anxiety to go around. For every Biden voter like Susan Macovsky, buying bottles of prosecco at a Pennsylvania liquor store to celebrate — even if perhaps a little prematurely, she admitted — there was another, like Rachael Lindemann, relieved but still nervous.
“I’m not going to count my chickens before they’re hatched,” she said.
There had been plenty of evidence in her life that things could change suddenly and inexplicably. Her husband, a struggling dairy farmer in Albany, Wis., had supported Mr. Trump in 2016, while she had voted for Hillary Clinton. But Mr. Trump’s trade war with China ravaged their finances, and they eventually had to sell their farm and cows. Mr. Lindemann took a construction job. This year, he voted for Mr. Biden.
For now, Ms. Lindemann was not celebrating. “I know he’s going to throw a 5-year-old tantrum and he’s going to turn over every table he can,” she said of Mr. Trump. “We don’t have a president yet.”
There are many, like Ms. Lindemann, whose vote was personal, a first chance to answer the president for what he brought or took away from them.
Nephtalie Hyacinthe, 42, a Haitian immigrant in Miramar, Fla., took her citizenship exam the day after Mr. Trump was elected in 2016. She viewed his first term as a four-year civics lesson that would help shape her political views and prepare her for the 2020 election.
She studied the president, listening as he took a hard line on immigrants and hearing reports of the disparaging things he called her homeland. And so on the last day of October, Ms. Hyacinthe weighed in, casting her first vote in America for Mr. Biden at a library. As she learned this week, she had picked the likely winner.
“For an immigrant, voting represents the white picket fence,” she said, her voice quaking with excitement. “This means I am an American citizen and I helped to pick our next leader.”
Just as Ms. Hyacinthe was discovering in her adopted country, plenty of people who have lived here from birth had learned — this week and over the past four years — that it was perhaps not the country they thought they had known.
“I’m sort of sick to my stomach,” said Sam Diana, a 55-year-old antiques dealer in Scranton — and a lifelong Democrat — who voted for Mr. Trump. He had been lying on the couch watching the returns for days, learning on Friday morning during a trip to Sam’s Club that his state had likely flipped to Mr. Biden. “I definitely, definitely, definitely believe it was fixed.”
Beneath all this, however, lay deep and unresolved questions about what was happening in the country and in the minds of his fellow citizens.
“Something’s going on in America — something scary,” Mr. Diana said. “It makes you get a lump in your throat when you think, Is this really America? Are we all partners? Why did they hate that man so much?”
Across the state in Erie that same morning, Karen Moski, 67, was leaving the house for work when she learned that Mr. Biden was now ahead in Pennsylvania. Among friends the night before she had found out that her home county, a reliably Democratic stronghold that had shockingly sent most of its votes to Mr. Trump four years ago, had also turned back to blue again.
“We’re getting rid of Donald Trump and that has been my goal for years,” she said, laughing at the realization that an outspoken Trump-supporting colleague would be coming into the office later that day. Perhaps Erie’s reversal was a sign the county had “probably just made a mistake” in 2016.
But there was no going back completely. Ms. Moski had learned things about her city over the last four years, she said, opinions that friends had about race and politics that had surprised her. Biden victory or not, Erie — and the country — would never be the same.
“That was an awakening,” she said. “We have some work to do.”
Campbell Robertson reported from Pittsburgh, Audra D. S. Burch from Hollywood, Fla., and Sabrina Tavernise from Stroudsburg, Pa. Reporting was contributed by Jack Healy in Denver, Jon Hurdle from Philadelphia, Tim Arango from Los Angeles, Elizabeth Dias from Washington, Will Wright from Louisville, Ky., Ruth Graham from Warner, N.H., and J. David Goodman from Houston.