At 6 a.m. Joseph Ariza, 32, stood first in line at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, baseball bat in hand, ready to protect himself from any gangs or other assailants. A case manager for Catholic Charities, he was voting early to avoid the Election Day lines — and because he was angry.
“I lost over 10 clients from COVID,” Ariza said, criticizing President Trump’s downplaying of the coronavirus. “I haven’t been this pissed off for over 10 years. I’m going to vote him out of office.”
The polls at the Bronx Supreme Court drew a line that stretched across multiple blocks. Across the street, members of the College & Community Fellowship organization carried posters and blew horns, encouraging people to vote. “If not for you, think of your children!” said one speaker, pacing.
A little after 10 a.m., when the polls at the Jackie Robinson Complex in East Harlem had been open for barely 15 minutes, the lines already extended in two rows over four city blocks. The queue reserved for seniors and disabled voters had a manageable wait time of 30 minutes, but people less than halfway down the other lines said they had already waited an hour and a half.
Voters there passed the time reading books, watching sports on their phones, fanning themselves on an unseasonably warm fall morning. One man who had successfully cast his ballot offered high-fives to those still waiting, drawing laughs and cheers. “Stick with it!” he shouted.
Today was the first time New York State permitted in-person early voting for a general election. Long lines formed at sites in Brooklyn, East Harlem and the Bronx, portending a crucial shift from the roughly 6.7% of in-person early voters in the September primary.
Early voting will extend until Nov. 1 at 88 polling sites around the city, including Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center.
“Momentum builds momentum,” said Erin Geiger Smith, author of “Thank You For Voting.” “If you weren’t thinking of voting or maybe uncertain if you would show up, but you’re seeing how huge the participation is, that can be a motivator for people.”
Voter Elaine Doyle, 72, on line at the Andrew Freedman Home in Highbridge in the Bronx, shared that sentiment. “The more people see that we’re voting, the more they’ll come out,” she said. “When I see the people in Georgia, Florida, on line, voting, it makes me want to vote.” Trenny R. Duke-Brown, a line management clerk at the site said, “It’s record numbers today.”
Poll worker Joann D’Alessio, 71, stood by the disabled line in East Harlem, warning seniors leaning on canes and walkers to avoid cracks in the sidewalk. A lifelong neighborhood resident who first volunteered as a poll worker in the 1970s, she estimated that more than 200 people were already in line when she arrived at 9 a.m., an hour before the polls opened.
“There could be some bumps in the road. Anytime something new is tried, a lot of times, it takes a while for things to even out,” said Trey Hood, a University of Georgia political scientist and director of its School of Public & International Affairs Research Center.
Ariza had technical problems printing his ballot, but with a poll worker assisting him at his station, he cast his vote.
“It’s only the first day, so we cannot expect much,” said Aliya Efendieva, 33, an entrepreneur who waited two hours at Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “Some people cannot afford standing two hours in line.”
Hope Johnson, 50, was so surprised by the line at the Freedman Home at 10:30 a.m. that she decided to go home and try again tomorrow. Her daughter, T’Nya Haynes, 21, a first-time voter, was equally stunned. “It usually takes two seconds to vote. But this is beautiful,” she said. “I’m glad to see the community out.”
Agnes Johnson, 70, a long time Bronx community activist, believed the crowds might mean real change. “The Bronx, I hope, is waking up. I hope that people are not just accepting the plate put in front of them.”
While some states offered this option due to COVID-19, New York enacted early voting before the pandemic hit. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 42 states and the District of Columbia are allowing in-person early voting this year — including early voting, in-person absentee and all-mail with early voting options.
“The U.S. really has 50 different election systems because each state administers its own elections within its borders,” Hood pointed out.
He and Geiger Smith both mentioned the importance of adding flexibility through early options.
“What all voting advocates or votes rights advocates and candidates are trying to minimize is really long lines on election day,” said Geiger Smith. “Because of COVID, we want everyone to be there less time and be around fewer people.”
“We don’t know what it’s going to be like on Election Day,” said Marcella Allen, 50, a primary care physician waiting in line at the Jackie Robinson Complex. “This might be safer.”
The CDC guidelines recommend that voters wear masks, use sanitizer, practice social distancing and avoid crowds, fill out forms in advance and bring their own black-ink pens.
In an advisory yesterday, the CDC warned that “voting practices with lower infection risk will be those which reduce the number of voters who congregate indoors in polling locations by offering a variety of methods for voting and longer voting periods.” The agency had surveyed 522 Delaware primary poll workers and found that they weren’t always wearing masks and that there were “gaps in infection prevention control efforts.”
At Our Lady of Perpetual Help, retiree Antonio Magana, 68, showed up at 7:30 a.m. Election officials allowed 10 people in at a time. “It’s organized completely nice,” Magana said, “it’s beautiful, it’s clean. Everyone’s six feet apart from each other.”
Historically, early voting “hasn’t been shown to increase overall turnout,” Hood said. “It’s just a different method for casting a ballot that gives voters a different set of choices.”
But Geiger Smith pointed out that “some states have already reached early voting numbers that are more than 50% of their total turnout,” she said. “This year, it really looks like we might see true record turnout.”
Republicans seemed scarce on Day One of early voting in New York. Of the 32 voters NYC Reopens reporters approached, only one was a Republican — and declined to comment. Bronx Supreme Court poll worker Keith Atkins, 59, however, is a Republican who decided to help out and to vote against his party. “Even though I’m a Republican, I need to help get this guy out.”
“I’ve found that Democrats and African Americans especially like to vote early in person. Republicans prefer to vote on Election Day,” Hood added.
Some New Yorkers decided to vote early out of distrust for the mail-in process. Sean Mulligan, 29, said he wanted to cast his ballot for Joe Biden in person at the Jackie Robinson Complex to make sure his vote counted, “especially with the USPS issues.” An electrician, he was waiting in the regular line with his fiancee, Wanda Mulligan, and their dog, three-month-old Poppy, riding in a sling around his neck.
“I don’t want nobody to stop me from voting,” said Doyle, waiting in the Bronx. “How could we not vote? So many people died to give us this right.”
This story was written by Shanna Kelly and reported by Clare Amari, Shanna Kelly, Man Sum Lai and Bridget Yassme.
(Photo of Bronx voter Babatunde Adeyemi, upper left, by Bridget Yassme. Photos of Joseph Ariza in Brooklyn, upper right; Antonio Magana in Brooklyn, lower left; and Aliya Efendieva in Brooklyn, lower right, all by Man Sum Lai)