Texas’s Harris County greeted the voting season with a clamor. At the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center in the Houston neighborhood of Montrose, people started showing up before sunrise on Oct. 13, the day early voting began in the state.
An average of 10,000 people an hour cast ballots across Harris County that day, and by the end of the week, more than half a million people had voted, a spike of 40 percent over 2016. The “blowout” numbers and a small number of technical problems with older voting machines led to some long lines, even though the county had tripled the number of polling locations this year, with 122 spread across the sprawling county, according to Lizzie Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Harris County clerk.
Sherry Browning, 65, woke up at 4 a.m. to bring her daughters, who are cheerleaders, to stand in front of the polling place to cheer people on as they lined up to vote before sunrise.
“If I die tomorrow, I did my duty.”
Lynsey Wenner, 29, works in a hospital as an occupational therapist. She arrived in line at 9:25 a.m. and was hoping she would make through in time to get to work for her noon shift. She took a video of the winding line and sent it to her family.
“I care about my country, of course, but I also care about my state and city and who is making decisions. I know I’m just one vote, but if I don’t vote, then I can’t be mad at the outcome. I want to support what I believe in.”
Goya Escalante, 66, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, said when she arrived a little before 8 a.m. and saw the line snaking around the park: “I wanted to cry. Turnout is usually so low. I felt so emotional, like the voting gods were smiling on us.”
She also could have voted by mail, “but I wanted the satisfaction of physically doing it. I want to feel America.” While in line, she texted her niece and about a dozen other family members and friends and urged them to vote.
Mary Nowell, 68, brought a picnic chair and set it up several yards ahead of her husband who was in line. She brought two cellphones and a backup charger to entertain herself while she waited. Nowell qualified to vote by mail but wanted to cast her ballot in person.
“This makes it mean something. Putting in the physical sacrifice makes it that much better.”
“We planned out our day because it’s that important. We’ve got grand kids to look out for."
Jeremy Herschaft, 43, a maritime attorney, was reading David Brooks’s book, “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life” to pass the time. He texted photos of the line to his friends, who responded with thumbs-up emoji.
“My kids saw me get dressed this morning and asked where I was going. I told them, ‘I’m going to vote.’ ”
Jessica Wilson, a 45-year-old lawyer, began waiting at 6:30 a.m. at the West Gray center. The line in front of her stretched the length of two football fields.
“I was hoping to be the first in line on Day 1. But I wasn’t the only one who had that idea.”
Dillan Dimas, a 27-year-old restaurant server, was worried about novel coronavirus exposure and inquired about voting by mail but learned that under Texas law, he was ineligible.
“This is about preserving our democracy and keeping what little civics we have left. I’m so warped by everything that this feels like the last thing we have left to preserve civil society.”
Debra Balthazar and her daughters, Ann, 30, and Mamie, 22, got up before 3 a.m. to try to beat the crowds.
Debra: “I’ve gone to other sites but the poorest neighborhoods get the worse equipment. I come here because I know my vote will count here where everything works well."
“I would vote even if the dogcatcher was on the ballot. I’ve voted in every election since I could. I used to go pick up my daughters from school to come vote in every election. Even when they were in college, I’d pick them up. The rule in our house was you don’t vote, you can’t live here.”
Mamie: “We knew coming here and doing it early that our vote will count.”
Anna Maria Garza, a 47-year-old social worker, had listened to three podcasts by the time she reached the halfway mark of the line. She texted two friends while she waited.
On the Saturday morning when early voting opened throughout New Mexico, voters in suburban Albuquerque queued up beside a shopping center near the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. The line stretched down multiple blocks and around buildings. At the Community of Joy Lutheran Church, in Rio Rancho, a conservative suburb of the city near a casino where President Trump held a rally last year, five people were lined up at 9:15 a.m., 45 minutes before the polling center opened. By 10:30, the wait time had grown to about an hour. Throughout Bernalillo County, home to Albuquerque, 12,814 people cast their ballots on the first day.
Tierney Whelchel, 19, texted her father while she was in line and suggested he try early voting. She was waiting to cast her ballot for the first time.
“It’s a little nerve-racking, but it’s for our country.”
For Michael Reinhart, a 52-year-old truck driver, and his wife, Carolyn, a 54-year-old training manager at McDonald’s, voting this year is about their 11 grandchildren and getting schools opened back up.
Michael: “If it took all day, I would wait to make sure my vote got counted.”
Penny DeRose, a 70-year-old retired teacher, and her husband Dave, a 73-year-old retired automechanic, were among the first to arrive at the church in Rio Rancho.
Dave: “To exercise that right, [I’d be willing to wait] as long as it takes. If I want to have a voice, you have to put your voice in there, you know. You don’t get heard without a voice."
Penny: “I told my daughters at home, ‘Let the dogs out, we might be here for a little bit.’ The experience, I think, is half the fun. We talk, we enjoy the sun — it’s gorgeous, it’s New Mexico.”
Eric Dodd, 47, who works in the oil and gas industry, and his wife, Tawnie, said they did not want to take a chance with voting by mail.
Eric: “The more stops between your ballot being received by the user, the more opportunity there is for it to get lost, get tossed out. We’ve had instances already where they’re finding them in garbage cans on the side of the road.”
Tim Hopkins, a 62-year-old carpenter, said he was passing the time talking to his neighbors. “It’s been fun, you know?”
“If you have to show your license to buy a six-pack of beer, I don’t see why there’d be a problem with anybody voting if they chose to. I don’t think you have to go to extraordinary measures.”
Madeleine Collins, an 18-year-old college student, came to Caracol Plaza, beside the foothills, with her father, Kieran, a 48-year-old engineer. They passed the time talking about the challenges of taking classes online. She said she was excited to vote early and did not want to have to drive from college on Election Day to cast her ballot.
“I think there’s a lot on the line this election. People’s freedoms and rights are at risk, and it’s really important to me.”
Phil Tonne, a 54-year-old botanist, said he decided to come out on the first day of early voting “so if I get covid, I want to make sure my vote counts!”
“It’s important because we have really broken everything in this country. We’ve taken all of the things that make us lively, creative, and secure and broken them. The truth is not being told. The truth is being hammered. The way that things get covered don’t allow people to be informed. So you get misinformation. We don’t see our neighbors. We create isolation rather than unity.”
Mark Whitson, a 56-year-old Army veteran, had tried to vote in the morning at the Holly Plaza shopping center, but the line was too long. He returned in the afternoon.
“We were gonna come back another day with chairs and umbrellas, so we were gonna vote no matter what. Me and my wife are both military and we’re very firm on voting.”
Riley Lewis, a 21-year-old artist, also took a chance at the end of the day at Holly Plaza after a friend told him the line in the morning was wrapped around the building.
“I figured I’m kind of young and able to go out and vote in person and vote early to know I voted correctly. If I had to, I’d stand for hours. I think this election is going to be really impactful and important.”
Alfred Achusim, an 18-year-old student, said he felt a responsibility to dress up and put on a bow tie to cast his first ballot: “It’s a duty, it’s a privilege.”
“It was hot while I was waiting but it was nice to have the sun on my face. I like just looking at the environment, like just looking around. If you just look around, people are goofy. Not like people are weird, but people are different, and that’s what’s so great about people. If you’re just sitting on your phone, you miss all that.”
Miguel Otero and Savina Romero, both 21, texted with family members as they waited.
Miguel: “I was even talking to my mom just now, and she’s like, ‘I’m so proud of you’ or whatever, because she’s been so vocal about us voting. Also like my friends — the other day I was talking to my buddy and he’s kinda like, ‘Aw, who cares about voting?’ And this year, he’s actually like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna vote.’ ”
It was still dark on the morning of Oct. 14 when Nate Foster pulled into the parking lot of the Hamilton County Election Commission in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he works as elections programmer. Already, there were dozens of people lined up in lawn chairs, bundled in coats and sipping mugs of coffee while they waited for doors to open to cast their ballots.
“You prepare, and you know that it’s going to be a big day,” Foster said. “Still, there’s something pretty intense about seeing 200 people lined up before you even start.”
In Tennessee, records were broken across the state as voters surged to polls for the first day of early voting. That was true in Hamilton County, where turnout for the first day of early voting was up 15 percent from 2016.
While the wait times were up to two hours for some voters, Foster said the machines worked smoothly and voters accessed ballots at a clip of every 18 to 25 seconds. “We knew that it was going to be a bigger year,” said Foster, who said the county has ordered 50 percent more ballots than it did in 2016.
Judy Currence, 73, and Archie, 84, got in line at 8 a.m.
Judy: “We knew who we were going to vote for from the beginning. We are Christians with Christian values, and it is very important to us to do the right thing with our vote. Our oldest daughter would probably be horrified that we were here with all of these people, but we just knew it was important to be here in person. It’s our right and our privilege, and we don’t take it lightly. We know where we stand.”
Lynn Newton, a 60-year-old graphic designer, and her daughter Shannon Sweeney, 22, took selfies as they waited.
Lynn: “With all of the talk about the Postal Service, I felt it was really important to be here in person. And after seeing all the news about long lines in places like Georgia, it was important to be in person on the first day. I want my vote to be counted.”
Shajuana Dawson, 47, and her children Demetrius, a 21-year-old student at Chattanooga State, and Emari (pictured), a 27-year-old corrections officer, stopped at Dunkin’ with Briana Lewis, 20, on their way to cast their ballots. All four of them had covid-19, and they said that experience heightened their urgency to vote.
Demetrius: “Top to bottom, the pandemic has not been handled with care.”
Shajuana: “It’s the sickest I’ve seen my children. They all had different symptoms. It makes me so angry that people — especially our politicians — aren’t taking it seriously.”
Briana: “It wasn’t the election I would have wanted for my first time, but we’re here.”
Emari: “I love seeing this turnout. I am so surprised, and so happy to see it.”
Shortly after 8 a.m., Briana sent a text to her boss.
Adam McElhaney, 38, said Americans are “tired, and they want to take action.” He texted a group of friends while he stood in line.
Shannon McCleary and 18-year-old daughter, Blessed Davis, arrived at 5:30 a.m. They sipped hot chocolate in their car for an hour before joining the queue.
Shannon: “I know how serious this is, and I was not willing to wait till November 3rd, because I knew it was going to be hectic and I didn’t know what was going to happen, so I didn’t want to take a chance.”
Blessed: “I have a bittersweet feeling. It’s a first-time experience, like you should be excited; but you hear these things people are saying about how your vote doesn’t really matter — that they’re only going to put in who they want to put in."
Shannon: “But she was coming no matter what, right? She may not be excited, but I am very excited for her."
Sidney Edwards, 69, an assistant at a funeral home, came before work. He spent his time in line chatting with the people around him. “I just like getting to know all these fine folks,” Edwards said.
“I’m hoping it moves along because I have to transport a body to the church by 10 a.m. for a funeral. But if I can’t, I’ll be back first thing tomorrow morning.”
“November 3rd is not promised to me; anything could happen. You’ve got to seize the day.”
Shelia Wofford, a 54-year-old actor, is performing in a play about two sisters who were civil rights pioneers — an experience that underscored for her the importance of voting.
“Today is the day. We want to set the bar, starting today. I’ve been urging, urging, urging those around me: Now is the time; don’t wait to vote.”
Dan Rineer, 78, read a stack of newspaper comic pages while he waited.
“I try to have these on hand to help lighten the mood before I need to do something serious. But it won’t curtail the seriousness with which I cast my vote.”
“I don’t care if I have to wait 6 hours; I will wait as long as I have to.”
In downtown Sarasota, people began lining up to cast their ballots about 90 minutes before Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner opened his doors at 8:30 a.m. for the first day of early voting this month. As the temperature climbed above 80 degrees, the line stretched out of the building, constructed as a hotel in 1925 by circus magnate John Ringling’s brother, Charles, and into a tree-shaded courtyard, where a steady breeze kept voters cool as they waited as long as an hour to cast their ballots. Inside, the floor was marked in six-foot increments for social distancing. By the end of the first day, 6,561 people had cast ballots in the county, down from the 7,794 who turned out for the first day of early voting four years ago.
Alix Monde, 60, a self-employed limo driver and an immigrant from Haiti, was voting early for the first time in his life. He texted his wife and children to urge them to do the same.
Josh Langford, 32, was voting for the first time in 5½ years. Exactly a year ago, he said, he was released from prison after serving time for a drug-related charge. People with felony convictions now have the right to vote in Florida after a constitutional amendment that was approved by voters in 2018, but a law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis requires them to first pay off any court fines and fees.
“The last 10 months of my sentence I was on work-release, so that helped me pay off my fines. Everybody inside was very cordial. It was very exciting. I’ve been up since 5 a.m., and I got here about 6:30 a.m. … It’s just overwhelming to be here today.”
Louethel Atkins, 69, a longtime poll worker, said she did not want to leave her ballot to the Postal Service.
“I wanted to cast my vote in person. I’ve worked at the polls for years so I know how it works. Voting is a wonderful thing.”
Don Brandes, a 59-year-old college instructor, and Katy, a 65-year-old college librarian, rode their bikes to the early-voting center.
Don: “Voting took us an hour, or a little bit more than an hour. It was fun. Everyone had a mask on.”
Katy: “They were wiping everything down in between voters. They really got it in hand. Normally we wait until the day of the election.”
Don: “We just wanted to make sure our vote counted. We figured Nov. 3 could be crazy.”
Katy: “This is the calm before the storm.”
Don: “I told my students to make sure they’re registered to vote, and to go vote, no matter who they vote for.”
Jessica Sanchez, a 36-year-old nutrition coach and yoga instructor, said she likes to vote early to avoid the crowds.
“Plus, if anything goes wrong I have a backup plan. I thought it went very smooth today. I was only here for about an hour before I got to vote.”
Ernest Ritz, 79, a retired general contractor, said it feels more personal to go to a polling location than using the mail.
“I’ve been a voter all my life. I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time. I didn’t want to do vote by mail. I got here at 20 till 7 and there were 20 people in line ahead of me. Normally I vote on the day of the election, but I was just anxious to vote. I feel better doing it in person.”
Atlanta and Marietta, Ga.
A deluge of voters swamped the polls in the Atlanta area during the first weeks of early voting, with about 400,000 turning out in Fulton and Cobb counties in the first 10 days. Many arrived while the sky was still dark, and lines quickly began forming through parking lots and down suburban streets. Officials initially said the sheer number of voters — including many who had originally requested mail ballots — was the main cause of the backlog, which left some voters waiting as long as 11 hours. Later, they acknowledged that the computer system used by poll workers to access voter profiles and check them in was operating slowly because it was overwhelmed by the volume. On social media, voters documented the scenes as volunteers handed out water bottles, doughnuts and pizzas.
Everlean Rutherford, 39, arrived at the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration Office in Marietta at 10 a.m. She finally got to cast her ballot at 7:43 p.m. After waiting so long, she said, “you feel like you’ve accomplished a lot.”
Rhonda Renae, 59, played Words with Friends to pass the time. After two hours, she gave up and went home.
“I ended up bowing out because it got so hot out there and there was no light at the end of the tunnel at that point. … I looked at the calendar and knew it went on for three more weeks, and realized I still had plenty of time to do this.”
“For this kind of an election they definitely needed to bump something up. They needed to either have a bigger facility, more people working, something like that. And some kind of line control. That would have been a lot better.”
Coleman Hand, a 20-year-old junior at Kennesaw State University, regarded the crowd in front of him.
“It’s good that people are in line. The people who are still out here are the people for whom it really matters to vote.”
James Tyler, 69, a retired educator, came to the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in Atlanta armed with snacks, a jacket and a book to help pass the time. He said he remembers hearing his parents and grandparents talk about poll taxes and citizenship tests, such as having to guess how many jelly beans were in a jar before being allowed to vote. After living in Arkansas, Texas and Wyoming, he said the voting process in Georgia was the most trying.
“The voting experience here is more cumbersome than anywhere else. It has become progressively more difficult to vote over time. It feels like voter suppression.”
Lytani Wilson, a 35-year-old doctor, waited two hours at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in Atlanta before a poll worker suggested she would have better luck at the nearby Georgia International Convention Center — where she encountered another line. In all, it took her five hours to cast her ballot. She passed the time by crocheting for a friend who was having a third baby.
“Not everyone is able to stand around all day.” But, she noted, Black men and women had “sacrificed so I could stand in this line. It’s a slap in the face not to do so.”
There is just one early-voting location in Franklin County, Ohio: the board of elections office, located in a shopping development next to a video-game shop and home goods store. When early voting began earlier this month, people started gathering outside before the sun rose, setting up lawn chairs and forming a line that stretched around and behind the building. More than 31,000 cast ballots in the first week, a 40 percent increase over early voting turnout four years ago. Because of coronavirus protocols, voters have to line up outside and six feet apart, which makes the lines look particularly long, said Aaron Sellers, a spokesman for the board of elections.
Jimmy Wright, 61, just spent six weeks in the hospital battling covid-19. He tried to vote the day before, but the lines were too long. Today, he arrived at 5 a.m., a folding chair in hand and an oxygen tank in his car. He was the first one there.
“It wasn’t nobody here. I brung me some doughnuts and my coffee, and I just stayed in line because I want my vote to count.”
“It hurts me so long to just stand a long time, that’s why I brought my chair and everything. They sent me home on oxygen. My lungs are damaged, my breathing is damaged. … I’m just glad to be alive.”
Ohio State University graduate students Gus Wulsin, 23, and Tal Shutkin, 23, and undergraduate Will Thompson, 22, rode together to the polls.
Tal: “It’s kind of ironic I think, the reason we came this week was because we thought we could sort of avoid the lines on actual Election Day, but I think everybody sorta had that idea."
Gus: “It feels like a pretty critical election cycle, at least in American politics. I feel like it’s a pretty defining moment moving forward, so I just feel like participating in it is more important than ever. Although, I think that gets said each election cycle."
Aryca Waller, a 47-year-old software developer, took a data analytics class on her phone while she waited.
“I need my voice to be heard and I want it to be heard now.”
“There’s a lot of people in this city that they, it’s not easy for them to get from where they are to come here. I’m fortunate, I can just get in my car and drive. But not everybody can just get out and drive here early, or get out and get their absentee ballot to this place and put it in the mailbox.”
Margaret Bowman, 78, her daughter Nichole Bowman-Glover, 49, and her granddaughter Raven Glover, 19, came together. Bowman said her rosary while she waited. How long were they willing to wait?
Nichole: “However long we had to.”
Raven, laughing: “I have class later, but...”
Nichole: “I want to make sure that I get my vote in. I think it’s more important for me to physically do it than mail it in. I wanted the experience of the three of us together.”
Margaret: “This is an important election. I want everything to go right. I want to know I did my part right.”
Pearly Price, 70, and his son DeMario Hill, a 39-year-old airport shuttle driver stood together.
DeMario: “You do what you gotta do. Every vote counts, even though when it seem like it don’t. It’s an important thing to do, make you feel involved.”
Pearly: “They should have at least three of these polls all over the city for as many people in this city. It’s ‘sposed to be a capital city. But they do this in order for you to like come around the corner and be like, ‘Aw, there’s too many people. I’m going back home.’ That’s to depress you and make you get up out of here. But, that’s not right."
“We’ve been used to that. I’ve been around, I’m 70 years old. I know how the game is played. That’s why I don’t mind standing in line."