Although Bennie Cobb now lives in Lakeland, he always makes it a point to vote in North Memphis so he can visit some of his old friends.
Wednesday was no exception. Cobb, a self-described “excited voter” who says he’s “ridin’ with Biden,” cast his ballot around noon on the first day of early voting at the Dave Wells Community Center. The line was long, he said, but the atmosphere was joyful.
“It was like a reunion,” said Cobb, who grew up in Hurt Village public housing. “It was just a wonderful experience to get back into that neighborhood and to see the amount of people in the line that were out there, the amount of people that were voting early on the first day.”
The first days of early voting in Shelby County went relatively smoothly, voters and officials say, with only moderately long lines in most locations that decreased as the days progressed. It was a welcome turn of events, given extensive wait times, battles over ballot drop-off locations and unauthorized ballot drop boxes plaguing early voting around the country. (See Shelby County’s early voting sites and hours here.)
On Wednesday, the first day of early voting, 26,839 people cast ballots in Shelby County, according to the Shelby County Election Commission. That shattered the first day early voting record of 16,265 in 2008, when then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was on the presidential ballot. Then on Thursday, more than 27,000 people voted, breaking the county’s all-time early voting record of 26,877 that same year, according to the commission.
The huge number of mail-in ballots requested and returned in the first two days were another sign of the energy around and the pandemic’s effect on this election.
By Wednesday night, the commission had counted 5,242 mail-in ballots, said Shelby County Election Commission administrator Linda Phillips. That’s only a few hundred shy of the roughly 5,600 mail-in ballots counted for the entire 2016 general election, Phillips said.
Long-time early voter Kenya Adjekum-Bradshaw said voting at the Dave Wells Community Center Wednesday evening felt easy, smooth, and importantly, safe. She was concerned, in part, about voting in person given the coronavirus and because of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, including telling the far right facist group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
For Adjekum-Bradshaw, “that was a direct call to action for racism.” But her voting experience wasn’t worrisome. “I felt both physically safe from a health standard and also from a physical standard as well,” she said, noting that she wore a mask from her company which makes African diaspora gifts and accessories.
The pervasive emotion was excitement, she recalled. “People dressed up, people were there – it was intentional. There was thought put into going out and voting and there was a level of community. People were just so nice to each other.”
The atmosphere reminded her of the communal enthusiasm in Washington, D.C. when she attended President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, Adjekum-Bradshaw said.
On both days, she said, “there was just this air of joy.”
Adjekum-Bradshaw voted around 7 p.m., when most of the lines had shrunk; she estimates she was in and out of the center within 10 minutes.
But earlier in the day, the lines were significantly longer. All locations had lines when they opened, Phillips said, and some voters even began to camp out at 3 a.m.
Cobb may have waited in line for over an hour at the same polling location, he estimates, but the time passed quickly as he spent it catching up with old friends.
“I’m sure it was an hour, but of course when you’re fellowshipping and having a good time it seems like it was 15 to 20 minutes,” said Cobb, who retired in 2011 after more than 30 years at the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.
Both Adjekum-Bradshaw and Cobb said voters and poll workers were conscious of safety concerns, with people in line keeping their distance and workers distributing coffee stirrers as disposable styluses for use on the electronic machines.
Poll workers must wear masks and each location has large quantities of hand sanitizer and disinfectant, according to Phillips. Windows are open where possible, plexiglass shields have been installed between the workers and voters, and voters are given single-use pens.
Voters can choose from five more early voting locations than in 2016 – and the polls are open longer too. At all locations except for the Shelby County Office downtown, the polls are open at 9 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. Phillips said the goal is to spread voting times over more hours, to allow for fewer people voting at once.
But any lines at all can disenfranchise voters, said Steve Mulroy, a law professor at the University of Memphis who specializes in election law. Earlier this year, Mulroy filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of voters who sued the state in May to expand permitted absentee voting options by adding coronavirus concerns. That case is still pending, though voters with underlying conditions, their caretakers and anyone living with someone with a condition are currently eligible to vote absentee.
While Mulroy called the first few days of early voting a “qualified” success, he said in part some of that is up to chance.
“We were lucky yesterday, and it looks like today as well, in that the weather is nice,” Mulroy said Thursday. Less pleasant weather, like the rain that’s possible over the weekend and into early next week, can have a dampening effect on voting enthusiasm.
“Lines snaking around the block outside for hours at a time are even more problematic when it’s really cold or rainy because then some voters might give up,” Mulroy said.
Mulroy also noted that in some places, like at the Riverside Missionary Baptist Church location on South Third Street, the lines were hours-long.
“The longer the wait, the more voters you lose, and then you disenfranchise people,” he said. And according to a Brennan Center for Justice report on national voting wait times published this summer, on average Latino and Black voters wait almost 46% and 45% longer, respectively, than white voters.
Still Mulroy expects the rest of the early voting to go as smoothly as it did on the first two days, with sporadic glitches possibly causing delays, especially as voting surges toward the end of the early voting period.
In a Zoom press call Wednesday, Jackie Morton, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare Director of Infection Prevention, suggested that in addition to physically distancing, practicing good hand hygiene and wearing masks, early voters could wait in their cars – instead of standing in line – until wait times decrease.
Both Phillips and Morton recommended voters try off-peak hours, such as mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Phillips also said she expects downtown locations on Saturday to be much less busy, since employees won’t be at their offices.
Voting “is part of our civic duty and responsibility,” for Adjekum-Bradshaw, who was inspired to vote on day one by images of long voting lines in Georgia.
“I wanted my vote to count as early as it could,” she said. “I wanted my information to be in those early numbers to show that people are taking this seriously and they’re turning out.”
Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
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