“God,” said voting station volunteer Andrew D’Abbraccio, mostly to himself, rubbing his arms to stay warm outside a Northern Virginia polling precinct early in the morning. “I’ve never seen it this empty in a presidential election.”
For months, elections officials feared outsize interest in the polarizing presidential contest would summon hordes of voters during a global pandemic, causing a logistical nightmare and an extreme public health risk. But come Tuesday, after voters smashed early voting and mail voting records, Election Day turnout felt skimpy.
DeLayfette Burnside, 25, strolled right into Patuxent Valley Middle School in Maryland’s Howard County on Tuesday morning wearing a red hoodie, black sweatpants and a white KN95 mask to cast his first vote ever.
Unlike the nearly 2.5 million area voters who cast mail-in ballots this year, Burnside refused to vote without seeing his ballot counted. He said he didn’t trust mailing it or using a drop box.
“I felt like anybody could take it and switch it up,” Burnside said. “I wanted to be sure.”
At Spring Hill Recreation Center in McLean, Andrew Baca, 25, breezed through the voting process and called it “weirdly quick for how much drama” led up to the election.
The downside of the early-voting surge — which was prompted by both the pandemic and new voting laws in Virginia — was that the laborious process of counting those ballots let to delays in reporting results. Some outcomes may not be known for days.
Virginia posted partial results after 11 p.m. and quit counting until Wednesday. In Maryland, officials said Election Day votes were missing from 170 of the 177 vote centers located in the state’s five most populous jurisdictions. The huge counting slowdown was because of the shift from neighborhood precincts to county-wide vote centers for Election Day voting, which made social distancing easier. Officials said vote-counting software wasn’t designed for the switch, and larger counties had to use a cumbersome manual override process to tabulate votes.
Unexpected Election Day turnout in a few rural, Republican-leaning counties in Maryland also led to delays. Thirty minutes after polls closed, officials in Cecil County reported lines at every voting center. And at Patuxent High School in Lusby, a town in Calvert County, voters remained in line until well after 10 p.m., slowing the release of election results across the state.
“We thought more people would take advantage of mail-in ballots,” said Kristen Scott, the executive administrative aide at the Calvert County Election Board. The high school had six poll books and 15 voting booths, and could only let 15 voters in at a time due to social distancing.
“It kind of slows down the process,” Scott said. “Our workers are working as quickly as possible but also as safely as possible.”
In the District, in contrast, turnout was lower than expected and lines were extremely rare, which officials hailed as evidence of a successful early voting campaign after a disastrous June primary.
“Just like everywhere in the country, we’ve pushed early voting, and it’s making a huge difference,” said D.C. Board of Elections Chairman D. Michael Bennett.
There were very few incidents or problems reported, although authorities in Norfolk arrested a 63-year-old man outside an elementary school Tuesday afternoon on an accusation of threatening to bomb a polling station. His identity and further details were not released, but he will be held overnight in the city’s jail, officials said.
Before the polls opened Tuesday, early voting in D.C., Virginia and Maryland totaled more than 75 percent of regionwide turnout in 2016 — 90 percent in the District, 82 percent in Maryland and 67 percent in Virginia.
Maryland elections officials said more than 475,000 people had voted statewide on Tuesday by 10 p.m., a fraction of the 2.4 million who cast ballots before Election Day. Deputy Elections Administrator Nikki Baines Charlson said it was impossible to say whether Tuesday’s turnout was typical, because nothing about 2020 is typical.
“We’ve never had 1.3 million voters vote by mail before. We’ve never had a million people vote early,” she said. “It’s never been an election like this.”
Maryland elections officials had advised voters to show up to the polls with a folding chair, water and a snack. The state’s June primary, like the one in the District, was beset by so many technology and balloting problems that politicians called for elections officials to resign. Ballot deliveries were botched for some voters, and long lines at some in-person precincts left voters disenfranchised.
For the general election, both Maryland and the District opened larger vote centers, rather than traditional, smaller precincts, to allow for better social distancing and larger crowds and that require fewer election judges to operate.
District officials said mailed and early in-person voting for the general election went much more smoothly, and they were hoping for that to continue through Tuesday.
“My only concern is that the early-vote centers haven’t been more full,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) told reporters Monday. “It could be that people have already cast their votes. . . . I hope that’s not the case, because we still have the opportunity to just blow out our turnout numbers in a D.C. election.”
As of 4 p.m., the voting lines across Virginia appeared to be short and moving quickly. “So far, it’s been a very smooth day throughout the Commonwealth,” said Chris Piper, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections.
The large percentage of mail-in votes — especially in Maryland and the District — may delay results for days or into next week.
Election officials in Maryland and the District planned to report some results of early voting — both mailed and in-person — shortly after the polls closed. Some Virginia localities had begun doing so as well, but several major population centers — like Fairfax and Loudoun counties — had not done so by 10 p.m.
All Virginia’s early ballots received through Monday had been scanned into vote-tabulating machines. Elections officials said they would be tallied until 11 p.m., with results posted sometime after that. The counting of the remaining early ballots would resume Wednesday.
Mail-in ballots received after Monday but postmarked by Election Day will be scanned starting Wednesday. Updated results will be reported as local jurisdictions finish counting, but not earlier than noon on Friday. The process may take until Monday for some larger localities, such as Fairfax County, officials said.
Baines Charlson said she expects some Maryland counties to be tallying mail-in votes well into next week. D.C. did not provide an estimate.
With smaller crowds, only minor hiccups arose Tuesday. A polling place in Hyattsville opened 30 minutes late as election judges struggled to get the electronic poll books running. A long line briefly formed at John R. Lewis High School in Springfield because the wrong polling equipment had been delivered; election workers had to use paper poll books as backups. Ballot-counting machines broke at Battlefield High School in Virginia’s Haymarket area and had to be replaced.
Some voters who cast ballots early found themselves at the polls on Election Day anyway. Cathy Robertson, 56, voted early, but her mother insisted on casting her ballot on Election Day itself, so Robertson escorted her to the polls at Duke Ellington School in the District. She said it gave her something to do on a nerve-racking day that she would otherwise spend worrying about the possibility of post-election clashes.
“I plan to watch TV all day,” she said. “I’m worried about hearing a sound and thinking it’s guns or mobs.”
Robertson, 56, said her husband was in North Carolina, a swing state, where he has spent the past three weekends canvassing. “He’s so nervous he can’t sit still.”
Several voters — Republican and Democrat — said they were “nervous,” “anxious” or “worried” about the outcome, regardless of who wins or when the results are announced.
“No matter what, people are going to be unhappy with the election,” said Christopher Genberg, 20, who voted in Haymarket. He said he voted for Trump because he believes the president has more character than Biden, but he expects unrest. “It doesn’t matter which side wins.”
Ricky Benade, 34, voted for Biden but shared Genberg’s pessimism.
“I just don’t know how it’s going to end up,” he said, sighing through his mask.
Anna Brugmann, Jim Morrison, Hannah Natanson, Aaron Schaffer, Patricia Sullivan and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.