Area residents brave long lines to cast early ballots
By Mike DeBonis, Patricia Sullivan and Laura Vozzella,
Tens of thousands of area voters cast ballots early this year, setting pre-Election Day turnout records even after Hurricane Sandy temporarily closed polls. Citing the weather, the convenience or fears that lines will be even longer on Tuesday, voters waited in lines for two hours or more in some areas.
The number of Marylanders taking advantage of early voting this year nearly doubled from 2010, the only other election year when the option has been available.
By the time the polls closed Friday, the last day to vote early in Maryland, 430,573 people — about 11.6 percent of eligible voters — had voted, according to unofficial numbers from the Maryland State Board of Elections. That compares with 219,601 — or 6.3 percent of eligible voters — in 2010.
In the District, officials estimated about 52,000 residents, more than 10 percent of the city’s registered voters, would take advantage of the early vote option by the time sites closed Saturday night. That is more than double the number of early voters in the September 2010 primary, when no-excuse early voting debuted.
In both Maryland and D.C., early voting locations were closed on Monday and Tuesday due to Sandy, but voting times were extended to compensate. Polls also closed those days in many parts of Virginia.
Virginia Republicans and Democrats alike have urged residents to “vote early” despite the fact that the state does not officially have any early-voting option open to all voters. Virginia allows absentee voting only for those who cannot make it to the polls on Election Day for certain reasons, such as military service, jury duty or a long commute. However, voters do not actually have to prove they meet those requirements.
As of Friday morning, 363,225 Virginia voters had cast either mailed or in-person absentee ballots, according to the latest figures from the Virginia State Board of Elections. That is down from the 417,251 Virginians who had voted absentee as of the Friday before the 2008 election.
Regardless, in-person absentee voting has been popular in the Washington suburbs. When the doors at the Arlington County building opened at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, about 20 people were already in line, waiting in the 40-degree chill to cast a ballot. By 10 a.m., more than 100 people snaked through the lobby and occasionally out the door.
Most said the 45- to 60-minute wait was worth it.
“I work for a Brazilian company and I have to be in New York Tuesday,” said Martha Devito as she left the polls. “My vote counts. I can wait for an hour.”
A young couple, Kisore and Shimu Anjir, stepped out of the county building and posed for a cellphone self-portrait marking the occasion. “We didn’t want to take any chances. Just do it now,” Shimu said.
A day earlier at the Silver Spring Civic Building, the line for early voting stretched out the door for about a block. Many residents said they came to vote in the presidential election and several controversial state referendums, particularly same-sex marriage.
“I don’t want to be waiting forever on Tuesday,” said Robert Taylor Smith, 18, who lives in Silver Spring and is a senior at Albert Einstein High School.
Elizabeth Schafer, a D.C. public school teacher who lives in Bethesda, said she considered voting Oct. 27, before Superstorm Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard. But when she arrived, the line persuaded her to wait a few days. “The line went around the block, and they said it was a two-hour wait, and I thought, ‘Let me try again later,’ ” she said.
The cold, windy weather did not deter a steady stream of early voters Friday at Landover’s Sports and Learning Complex. They included retired police officer Gilbert Cannady, 57, of Hyattsville, who said he wanted to “get this over with.”
“I’m sick of all the advertising,” he said.
Crystal Baskins, a 33-year-old Prince George’s schoolteacher, on Friday said she thought early voting would be easier than voting on Election Day. It turned out not to be so simple.
“With all the power outages because of Hurricane Sandy, I’m worried about the system malfunctioning,” she said. “I came out [the previous] Saturday, the line was too long. Couldn’t do it. Then I came out yesterday; it was rainy and cold. Couldn’t do it. Today is the last day.”
In the District on Saturday, voters at several early voting locations reported waits of two hours or more.
The gym at the Columbia Heights Community Center was packed wall to wall. Some voters were dissuaded by the wait, while others waded into the lines with books, coffee or friends to kill the time.
Many voters who arrived later in the day, when waits stretched to three hours, left when they saw the line.
Those who stayed received two instructions from the elections official at the front door: where the line began and how to find the bathroom.
At Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Northeast, the line to vote on one of 17 voting machines started outside in blustery weather before moving to an indoor hallway and then a large gymnasium.
Many voters said they waited two hours or more but few complained. While the adults waited in line, the younger children played checkers or board games.
“It’s been moving at a pretty good clip, and it seems they have their act together,” said James Taylor, 55, of Woodridge, as he watched elections officials direct voters to various lines inside the gymnasium. “I want to make sure I get my vote and don’t want to take any chances come Tuesday.”
City officials reported even longer lines at some early voting locations, but wait times appeared to average an hour at both the Takoma Recreation Center and the Chevy Chase Community Center for much of the afternoon.
Democrats hold massive registration advantages in Maryland and the District, and those taking advantage of early voting tilted even more heavily toward Democrats. In Maryland, 287,057 Democrats voted early, compared with 89,393 Republicans. An additional 49,773 unaffiliated voters cast early ballots.
In the District, through Friday’s voting, 86 percent of early voters were Democrats in a city where 75 percent of registered voters are Democratic. Virginia voters do not register by party.
Charity Brown, Tim Craig, Miranda S. Spivack, Nikita Stewart, John Wagner and Victor Zapana contributed to this report.