The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Citing a history of voter suppression, Black Marylanders turn out to vote in person

Citizens wait in a long line to enter the Wayne K. Curry Sports and Learning Center in Landover on the first day of early voting in Maryland. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

They brought folding chairs, determination and family stories of voter suppression. One came with a sprained ankle, another skipped a morning’s work. Several had lost family members to the coronavirus pandemic but still risked their own health to inject confidence into an electoral system they distrusted.

“I wanted to see my ballot being taken,” said Dwayne Jones, 54, who at 7 a.m. was the 12th person in a line of more than 500 outside the Bowie Gymnasium in Prince George’s County, waiting to cast a ballot he could have easily mailed from home.

Across Maryland, similar lines snaked out of community centers and schools and massive venues that had never hosted elections before, including Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

Many voters treated casting a ballot like a personal triumph, with couples high-fiving and sons and daughters Facetiming their parents to brandish “I voted” stickers, which election judges sometimes distributed alongside tiny bottles of hand sanitizer.

In a year in which concerns about covid-19 prompted nearly half of Maryland voters — 1.7 million — to request ballots by mail, throngs also turned out for the first day of in-person early voting, seeking the familiarity of casting their ballots they way they always had.

Elections officials said more than 160,000 people voted in person Monday, exceeding the previous single-day record of 143,000 that was set on the last day of early voting in 2016.

There was a long line outside Wayne Curry voting site in Prince George's County Md. on Oct. 26, with some voters reporting waiting times of over two hours. (Video: The Washington Post)

‘My people fought for the right to vote’: With a surge of emotion, Black Americans rush to the polls

“I have never, ever seen lines this long,” Montgomery County Board of Elections chief Jim Shalleck said early Monday after arriving at a voting center in Silver Spring. “It just goes blocks and blocks. Hundreds of people. Unbelievable.”

Many who showed up at the polls in Maryland’s deep-blue suburbs said President Trump’s rhetoric and record made it imperative to vote him out of office.

While Trump is popular in more rural parts of Maryland, Democrat Joe Biden is strongly favored statewide and overwhelmingly supported in the suburbs that border Washington. Of dozens of in-person voters interviewed in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties on Monday, none said they were voting for Trump; one man who wore a “Make America Great Again” hat while in line in Germantown turned away when approached by a reporter.

Black voters, in particular, said the legacy of voter suppression in this country encouraged them to do whatever it took to ensure their vote was counted. Roughly 1 in 3 Maryland residents is Black, the country’s highest concentration outside of the Deep South.

“This vote is very important to me because of all Trump wants to do,” said Jones, a Biden supporter who is Black and marveled at the line of voters snaking around the building and onto the busy street.

He said he opposes Trump’s separation of families at the Mexican border, the rushed appointment of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett and his pledges to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Jones decided months ago that he would have to vote in person, rather than by mail, viewing controversy over the operations of the U.S. Postal Service as evidence “the cheating has begun.”

Where to vote early: Map of early voting and drop box locations in Maryland, Virginia, D.C.

Farther back in the line, Betty Marbury, 73, who receives dialysis treatments three times a week, leaned against a pole, straightened her mask and accepted a chair a stranger offered. She never considered voting any other way.

“I wanted to be here,” she said. “I had to.”

Marbury was too young to vote during the 1964 presidential race between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater, but she remembered voters being turned away from the polls. She said she gathered a group of friends and headed to the voting center to encourage people to stay in line. Since she came of age, she has gone to the polls for every election, she said.

Several older Black voters said they were driven to the polls on Monday by the stories — or memories — of their childhood.

Growing up in Georgia during the Jim Crow era, Netia Walker, 66, often heard her African American elders discuss the hoops they had to jump through to vote, including literacy tests.

She considered doing mail-in voting this year because of the risk of coronavirus exposure but eventually dismissed the idea because “of all the craziness with the Postal Service.”

“Nobody was going to stop me from voting,” said Walker, an actress, who cast her vote for Biden at the Germantown Community Recreation Center.

America in line: From Houston to Chattanooga to Columbus to Atlanta, voters wait their turn

Jaqueline Smith, 66, had two siblings die during the pandemic, a sister to covid-19 and a brother to what she suspects was also linked to the virus. Outside Kentland Community Center in Landover, she wore two masks and three layers of clothes in hopes of shielding herself from infection. She said she felt more confident her vote would be counted if she cast it in person, and besides, it had been tradition since she turned 18.

“For me as an African American, this is very important,” said Smith, of Bladensburg. “When there is an opportunity for hope, you have to take it.”

Across the nation, more than 61 million people have cast ballots by mail, drop box or in person — 130 percent of the 2016 early-vote total for the entire country.

In Maryland, as of Monday, 948,000 ballots had been returned. To limit crowding and exposure, officials expanded the number of early-voting centers across the state and have been urging voters to “make a plan” to cast their ballots, encouraging them to mail in the forms or drop them off at ballot boxes.

But people began lining up as early as 5 a.m. at early-voting centers Monday. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day through Nov. 3.

At the Activity Center at Bohrer Park in Gaithersburg, Bobbi Besley, 56, arrived at 6 a.m. with her two children, both in their 20s.

“I wanted my vote to count,” she said, noting that the mail system has been “bizarre” recently, with deliveries coming late to her home. “I thought, why take the chance?”

Michael Johnson, 18, cast his first vote in a presidential election on Monday, and his mother insisted he show up in person to do it. He’d watched both presidential debates and Trump’s “60 Minutes” TV interview on Sunday, and has been reading up on the race since quarantine began in March.

“There is a lot at stake,” said Johnson, who waited more than an hour to vote at the Wayne K. Curry Sports and Learning Center in Landover. “It’s important to everyone.”

Many Black leaders and elected officials said they have been hearing from neighbors, family and friends in recent weeks who said they planned to vote in person despite the virus risks.

Bob Ross, president of the Prince George’s branch of the NAACP, said someone joked at a recent get-out-the-vote rally that he “would put on a diving suit if he had to, he’s going to go in there and vote.”

Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) said it has been mostly older Black voters, a population most vulnerable to the coronavirus, who have told her that they planned to vote in person.

“They remember when we couldn’t, and the obstacles that we had to endure to get the vote,” Jones said, referring to barriers that ranged from poll taxes to literacy tests to being told to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar as a way to disenfranchise Black voters during the Jim Crow era.

Again and again, voters on Monday echoed that distrust and voiced a desire to prevent their own disenfranchisement.

Across the country, Democratic enthusiasm is propelling an enormous wave of early voting

Outside the Curry center, named for the first Black county executive in Prince George’s, waits stretched as long as three hours. Among those in line was Rick Queen, a former Marine who voted for Trump in 2016 because he mistrusted Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But he soon lost faith in the president.

Like others, he said he wanted to make sure his ballot was counted.

Queen, 62, said he has voted ever since he turned 18, when his great-grandmother — born in 1897 — practically dragged him to the polls. “She said a lot of our people have died for that right,” Queen said. “That hit home.”

He said the president could have been a hero, bringing the country together, but has instead mishandled everything from international affairs to the pandemic. He said he was particularly disturbed by Trump’s disparaging comments about the military, given that the president got a medical deferment during the Vietnam War.

Not far away was Donnie Matthews, 59, of Upper Marlboro, who said he recovered from the coronavirus in July. He wanted to vote for Biden in part to show his dissatisfaction with how the president has handled the pandemic.

Matthews said he recently sprained his ankle but decided to “limp my way here” and wait for hours to hand his ballot to an election judge. “I wanted to see it and sign it and turn it over to someone,” he said.

Voting in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Map: Where to vote early in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Voting guides: D.C. | Maryland | VirginiaHow to vote: D.C. | Maryland | Virginia

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