The first day of early voting in New York on Saturday saw hundreds of people in line outside polling places across the Capital Region, and consistent waits — in Saratoga County, for hours — to get into the centralized polling places.
The high turnout seen across the region on the first of nine days of early voting reflects what has been seen across the country, as voters look to vote early to avoid Election Day crowds, out of enthusiasm for their candidates, out of fear of COVID, or for other reasons. Nearly all those waiting in lines wore face masks, and attempted to maintain a few feet of distance from others.
While presidential elections always draw high turnout, the 2020 election between President Donald J. Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden — and politics in general this year — has been unusually contentious, making some people happy to put the election behind them.
“I wanted to feel that it was over, it’s been going on for so long,” said David Morrow, 64, of Schenectady, after voting at Niskayuna Town Hall — one of four early voting locations in Schenectady County.
This is just the second year that New Yorkers have been able to participate in early voting, though some states have had it for years. It is the first time New York has had it during a presidential election year.
Early voting has meant adaptation to new technology for boards of election, with electronic pollbooks and print-on-demand ballots. The technology was a source of problems in Saratoga County, where lines were long.
The Ballston Spa polling site opened about 10 minutes late due to issues with the new technology. Opening was delayed at two of the early voting sites — Gavin Park in Wilton and at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library in Clifton Park — due to problems with getting on-demand ballots to print. At all three sites, some people reported on social media that they waited for two or three hours.
William Fruci, the county’s Democratic commissioner, apologized in the morning for the delays. Final tallies from the county weren’t available after polls closed.
The Schenectady County Board of Elections said 2,981 people voted at its four locations on Saturday, just 10 fewer than voted during the entire early voting period in 2019.
“There were lines at all four polling places, but lines were moving quickly and voters were very happy,” Amy Hild, the county’s Democratic elections commissioner, said after polls had closed at 2 p.m. “Our poll workers did a wonderful job.”
“I thought it was more than we expected, but I thought it went well,” said Darlene Harris, the county’s Republican commissioner.
The commissioners think Saturday will turn out to be one of their busiest days, though next weekend is also expected to be busy.
At the Karen B. Johnson Library in downtown Schenectady, voter Michelle Slater, 59, of Schenectady, said she has voted in every election since she turned 18-years-old, and with all the controversial about voting by mail, she decided to vote early and in-person instead.
“I didn’t want to take any chances,” Slater said. “At first I was going to do mail-in, but there was so much controversy going on…Not voting is not an option.”
Despite gloomy skies and a brisk breeze, the line at the library when polls opened at 9 a.m. was 250 people long, while 200 people were waiting when polls opened at Niskayuna Town Hall. By late morning, the line in Niskayuna was still steadily around 60 to 70 people. Some voters even brought their own chairs, in anticipation of a wait.
Entering the polling places, voters were being offered hand-sanitizer, and electronic signature pads and other surfaces voters touched were being wiped with sanitizer between each use — COVID precautions that slowed the process and required county Boards of Election to add extra staff.
In Ballston Spa, the line at the voting location in the Saratoga County Cooperative Extension Auditorium circled three sides of the building when polls opened, and the wait was up to two hours.
Friends Hannah Smithgall of Ballston Spa and Amber Sickler of Ballston Lake, both 19, were among the first in line and first to cast votes in Ballston Spa. Both are also first-time voters.
“It was exciting,” Smithgall said. “I knew exactly who I was going to vote for, so I was anxious to get it over with.”
Sickler said she wanted to vote early to avoid long lines, nodding wryly toward the long but socially distanced line. “I didn’t have any issues,” she said. “I was super-nervous, but it was exhilarating.”
In Schenectady County, the Board of Elections has partnered with the Capital District Transportation Authority to establish or increase bus service to the early voting sites during early voting hours.
“Early voting is even more important this year during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hild and Darlene Harris said. “We’d like to thank CDTA for making our early voting sites more accessible to voters, so they have more options to participate in the election process.”
But sometimes, people just happened onto a voting site, and decided it was a convenient time to vote.
“I came down to get a book, and the line was short,” said retired teacher Katherine Hargett of Rotterdam, who was at the Karen B. Johnson Library. She had planned to vote early anyway, she said, “just to avoid lines.”
In Montgomery County, 369 people voted on Saturday at the county board lobby in Fonda, the only early voting site in the county. “That’s more than we had in all of early voting last year,” said Terry Bieniek, the county’s Democratic elections commissioner. “It was surprising. I didn’t think we’d have that much of a turnout.”
There was a line out to the street when the office opened, he said, and a line remained all day. Some people waited up to an hour.
“People are telling us everyone is pushing it, the candidates and the newspapers, to get out there and vote early so you know your vote counts,” Bieniek said.
Lee Hollenbeck, Fulton County’s Republican elections commissioner, expected the first day of early voting to be busy, but the county’s single early voting site at the county complex in Johnstown drew 380 people on Saturday — more than twice as many as voted during all nine days of early voting in 2019.
“When we started, the line outside [went] out to the salt shed,” Hollenbeck said. “The people, I got to tell you, if we had somebody on crutches, they let them down through. Consider how cold it was and how they had to stand in line, Fulton County just has great people.”
Hollenbeck said some people told him they are “snowbirds,” and wanted to vote in person before going south rather than vote by mail.
Early voting will be available from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday and also next Saturday and Sunday. Others hours are noon to 8 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Early voting ends on Nov. 1. Election Day, when polls across the state will be open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., is Tuesday, Nov. 3.