Many voters flocking to the polls across the U.S.—enthusiastically casting more early ballots than ever before in a presidential election—are running into trouble.
These difficulties are emerging even after dozens of states have made changes designed to make voting more accessible amid the pandemic. At least 30 have implemented or expanded the availability of absentee ballots, set up ballot drop-boxes and widened access to early voting.
Some voters say the location of the limited number of early-voting sites affects their ability to cast their ballot. In New York City, there are only 88 for five million potential voters.
“My site was a thirty-minute walk from my house, which I was happy to do to get some air,” says Jessica Mendieta, 26, of South Ozone Park in Queens. “But not everyone has the same convenience. And so for early voting, unless you live very close to the site, you’re not as likely to invest the time and fare to vote early.”
Nonetheless, early voters are breaking national records. According to the U.S. Election Project, run by University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, at least 80 million Americans had voted as of Thursday afternoon—surpassing the 2016 election early-voter turnout by more than 30 million.
More than a dozen states used mail-in ballots in 2020 primaries after COVID-19 struck. Others, such as New York, have implemented early in-person voting for the first time in a general presidential race, giving voters more than a week to cast ballots in person before Election Day on Nov. 3.
“Being able to have these nine extra days means it’s more convenient for voters. You get to choose when it’s best for you to do it,” said Jan Combopiano, executive committee member for the volunteer, nonpartisan Brooklyn Voters Alliance. “Early voting really is a more voter-friendly way to vote.”
New York State law requires each county to have one early voting poll site for every 50,000 voters. Yet lines still stretched for blocks outside many city sites on Saturday and Sunday as voters queued up hours before polls opened.
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Using the drop boxes set up at the sites to accept absentee ballots can allow voters to avoid long lines.
“I think it’s a great thing you can fill out your ballot and drop it off in a secure ballot box without being exposed to the elements and waiting in line for hours possibly—or fear of drop boxes being tampered with or destroyed,” said Daris B. Jackson, 38, of the Bronx, who is a lawyer.
He was among the voters who support the expanded access under the new measures, which include allowing absentee ballots to be returned to any polling site. “This is reassuring,” Jackson said.
Not everyone is as confident about the system’s integrity. In Columbia, Maryland, Kelsey Gage, 36, who works in talent acquisition, expressed concerns over inconsistencies in the supervision of drop boxes, which she said are “everywhere.”
“Some have 24/7 officers by them, others have nothing. When I dropped my ballot off, nobody was there,” she said. “Other locations have security guards or police officers in front of them, so I think that might be intimidating for some people.”
Gage said she believes there need to be even greater efforts made toward systemic change in how Americans vote.
“There is no competency in the voting system in this country. It’s all based on defrauding too many citizens their equal opportunity of the right to vote…the right to vote is taken away so freely against minorities in this country,” Gage said. “The whole system is founded on an absolute, utter concept of government contempt for citizenship.”
Other Americans are wondering why the move toward expanding access to voting has taken so long.
“There should always have been early voting and more accessible voting options,” said Chanthoun (Paul) Ros, 34, a retail worker who lives in Stratford, Connecticut.