“I’ve always said that I wanted to be the first person to vote against Donald Trump,” said Miller, 33. “I just couldn’t wait. I just couldn’t. . . . And for four years I have waited to do this, so here I am.”
Early voting for the November election kicked off Friday in four states as voters showed up in person to cast their ballots, driven by a sense of urgency about the divisive presidential election, growing unease over the timely delivery of mail ballots, and fear of exposure to the novel coronavirus at the polls on Election Day.
By this weekend, as many as 20 states will have begun some form of general election voting by mailing out absentee ballots or allowing people to cast them in person, giving Americans an opportunity to make their selections for president and other offices long before Nov. 3.
In Minnesota and Virginia, election officials described long lines in some places as people queued up even before voting sites opened, standing on stickers glued six feet apart for social distancing.
At Minneapolis’s elections office, 44 people had cast ballots in the first half-hour of voting, said Grace Wachlarowicz, the city’s director of elections and voting. Inside the elections office, workers wore masks and face shields, and they sat spaced out between Plexiglass shields.
Voting booths were stocked with hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes, and “I voted early” stickers — usually distributed by workers from a roll — had been cut into individual labels and placed on a table away from workers.
Voters also had the option of turning in their ballots from their cars curbside. Minneapolis’s convention center — largely unused because of the pandemic — was transformed into a temporary office for workers mailing and processing absentee ballots.
“With the whole covid-19 environment, voters have multiple opportunities to vote safely, whether it’s in person or through the mail, and ensure that they have that confidence that they know their ballot is received by us and it is processed,” Wachlarowicz said.
The safety measures and long lines come as the country embarks on a presidential election like no other. Even as election officials have sought to make voting safer by offering more mail-in options amid the pandemic, President Trump and many of his Republican allies have falsely cast doubt on the security of mail-in voting. The fears have been exacerbated by mail delays caused by changes enacted by a new postmaster general who is a major donor to the president.
As a result, election officials have dealt not only with a surge in mail-in ballot requests, but an expected surge in voters seeking to avoid the crowds on Nov. 3 by showing up for early voting or personally turning in absentee ballots. They have also had to make extra efforts to reassure jittery voters that their ballots are safe, including those that are mailed in, and that their votes will be counted.
At least 800,000 ballots have been sent out by mail across the country so far, including in the swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina, according to The Washington Post’s analysis of elections data. That number is set to balloon over the next few weeks as election officials respond to a surge in requests for absentee ballots.
About 6 in 10 registered voters nationally said they wanted to vote before Election Day, a significant departure from previous years, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted by Ipsos.
A larger percentage of Democrats prefer to vote by mail this year compared to Republicans, but there is a racial divide among Democrats, with Black Democrats much more likely to prefer voting in person than White Democrats.
As a result, Biden is expected to gain an early edge through ballots cast before Nov. 3, while Trump supporters will surge on Election Day.
In North Carolina, the first state to mail out ballots starting this month, 55 percent of the roughly 101,000 ballots that have been cast came from registered Democrats, state records show. About 16 percent were from registered Republicans and 29 percent had no party affiliation.
Many of those Democrats, who had cemented their views about Trump years ago, took advantage Friday of a first chance to take a tangible strike against the president, their votes bringing a sigh of relief that they had done their civic duty six weeks ahead of Election Day.
“It’s not like my mind is going to change before Election Day,” said Steve O’Rourke, 65, who was second in line to vote with his son in Minneapolis on Friday. “We’ve got to get Trump out. I can’t take another four years of this.”
O’Rourke, who works in construction, had considered voting with an absentee ballot but said he wanted to “make absolutely sure” that his vote was counted.
Among those who cast ballots Friday were also Trump supporters. In Anoka County, which has long been a faithfully red county bordering the traditionally blue Twin Cities, Michael and Cecilia Erko of Blaine, Minn., dropped off their absentee ballots in support of the president.
The Erkos, who work in insurance, said they dropped off their ballots early because of worries they might be working on Election Day and also because of concerns about the safety of mail-in ballots.
“We just decided to step it up and bring it in person,” Cecilia Erko said.
Trump wasn’t perfect, they said, but what made them back Trump for another for years were “actions.” The economy had been good before the coronavirus, Trump had made progress on peace in the Middle East, and manufacturing had been strengthened because of his work on trade, the couple said.
In-person early voting also began Friday in Virginia, where some voters in Democratic-leaning Fairfax County waited as long as four hours to cast their ballots.
As videos emerged of long lines of voters in Fairfax County, Trump sought to project confidence and energize his supporters. “Voting starts in Virginia TODAY, and we are going to WIN,” he tweeted. “For all the Federal Employees in Virginia, remember, it was me that got you the Federal Pay Raises, not Sleepy Joe Biden. I’ll be having a Big Rally in Virginia, to be announced soon!”
Biden also urged voters in Virginia to cast their ballot early, saying their “voice is absolutely critical to deciding who we are as a nation. This is our moment.”
Wyoming and South Dakota, more Republican-leaning states, also began early voting on Friday. Several other states are scheduled to follow suit next week, with some states allowing voters to register and vote in person on the same day.
With Trump’s repeated attacks on the integrity of mail voting and the mail delays prompted by changes at the U.S. Postal Service, many voters said Friday they were eager to take advantage of early voting options in person to make sure their vote is counted.
“It just felt safer to come and do it in person,” said Kurt Schenk, 56, who cast his ballot Friday morning in Minneapolis to avoid possible mail issues.
Schenk and his wife, Amy Bear, 60, both wearing masks, were in and out of the Minneapolis Elections and Voter Services office within 10 minutes and said the process seemed to run even more smoothly than in previous elections. While they had voted early in the past, they felt more urgency to do so this year because they are worried about legal challenges to mail ballots.
“They saw me, they saw my signature. There was less potential for [my ballot] to be disqualified or subject to question if there’s some kind of litigation,” Schenk said.
On Friday, Minneapolis election officials began mailing out nearly 115,000 ballots, which account for approximately 44 percent of registered voters in the city, officials said — a dramatic increase over previous years. The city normally has a staff of about 60, but now has up to 200 people processing mail applications, sending out ballots, and accepting and preparing ballots for tabulation, Wachlarowicz said.
Virginia’s state legislation expanded access to early voting this year to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Now, any voter can cast an absentee ballot at a registrar’s office or early voting center without listing a specific reason.
Virginia voters who waited for an hour or more on Friday morning said they were eager to have their say in the bitter presidential contest, and wary of both Election Day crowds and the ability of the Postal Service to deliver mailed ballots on time.
“I’m very skeptical about how that process is going to work,” said Phyllis Appel, 78, who voted for Biden at the Loudoun County Office of Elections in Leesburg. “I want every vote to count.”
Like in many other states, South Dakota’s state election officials provided personal protective equipment for local election officials in advance of early voting beginning on Friday, including masks, hand sanitizer, Plexiglass shields, one-time-use pens, masking tape for social distancing and disinfectant wipes, said Steve Barnett, S.D.’s secretary of state.
Bob Litz, the county auditor of Minnehaha County, S.D., where Sioux Falls is located, said the flow of in-person voting today has been “brisk and steady.” The voters who were in line before the office opened were anxious and eager to vote, and the mood of the crowd became more mellow as the day progressed, he said.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm, let’s just say, on both sides,” Litz said.
On Friday, 322 voters in Minnehaha County cast their ballot in person, including 91 who were set up to receive a ballot by mail but opted to vote in person instead.
South Dakota began sending out mail ballots to about 110,000 voters who had requested them so far, and state officials are anticipating an increase in absentee voting this fall compared to previous years.
In Wyoming, all 23 counties began in-person voting and the mail-in voting process Friday. Registered voters can visit their county clerk’s office, request an absentee ballot that they can fill out and return there, or use one of the voting machines to cast their vote.
State officials have ramped up their “Let’s Vote Wyo” voter education efforts this fall to remind voters of their options and deadlines, and detail the precautions election officials are taking due to the pandemic, said Will Dinneen, communications and policy director for the office of Wyoming’s Secretary of State. State officials sent out a mailer and absentee ballot request to every registered voter for both the primary and general elections this year, he said.
Among the other states providing alternative options for voting this year is Michigan, where the first round of ballots is set to mail out on Sept. 28.
In Troy, Mich., a Detroit suburb, election officials are preparing for the logistics of setting up a drive-through pickup option for voters who want to get their ballots the Saturday and Sunday before they are mailed out.
Mail delay issues during the primaries prompted city officials to set up the drive-through option for the general election, and officials now expect to have 26,000 absentee ballots ready for pickup that weekend. Voters can drive up to the clerk’s office and provide their identification to the staff, who will then retrieve the ballot and hand it to the voter.
In addition, city officials signed a contract with a private mail tracking service that works with the post office, allowing staff to see where each ballot is in the mailing process. Aileen Dixon, clerk for the city of Troy, said these new measures are intended to bring certainty to both her staff and to voters.
“I don’t like flying blind,” Dixon said. “I don’t like being like, ‘I don’t know it must be lost in the mail,’ I hated that answer. . . . Our lifeline is taking control of whatever we can, instead of kind of waiting for someone else to fix it for us.”
Elise Viebeck, Scott Clement, Lenny Bronner, Antonio Olivo, Kayla Ruble and Matt Viser contributed to this report.