New York Election Day Crowds Turn Thin After Early Voting

Signs point the way to the polling site at East Harlem’s PS 7 during the mid-afternoon on Election Day. Photo by Brett Aresco.

New Yorkers are used to crowds. But on Election Day 2020, they were few and far between.

In one more twist in an unprecedented election, New York City voters and poll workers reported a quiet atmosphere on Election Day. 

Across the five boroughs, New Yorkers reported early morning lines, but by the afternoon and into the evening, poll sites were nearly empty. Even the expected lunchtime rush did not seem to materialize. 

“People were lined up already when I got here to start my shift at 5:00 a.m.,” said Daniela Czemerinski, a poll worker at Knickerbocker Plaza on the corner of East 91st Street and Second Avenue. “By 5:45 a.m. the line was down and around the block, almost reaching Third Avenue. By 7:40 a.m., the line was completely gone …There’s been nothing.”

Through nine days of early voting — the first time that option was available for a presidential election in New York — more than 1.1 million New York City residents cast their ballots. Some braved hours-long lines and miserable weather.  An additional 1.2 million New York State residents voted by mail. 

On Tuesday, some who held out to cast their ballots on Election Day cited the record-breaking wait times at their early voting location as their reason for holding off. 

“I tried to vote early, but my son waited six hours to vote and I was not going to do that,” said Donna Martin, an Upper East Side resident. “I thought if I couldn’t make it on the first day of early voting, I would just come on Election Day.” 

In East Harlem, the story was the same. First-time poll worker Brandy Bajalia said the line at P.S. 7 on 120th Street and Lexington Avenue was around the block by about 7:00 a.m., with some voters facing waits of an hour or more. The early rush then gave way to a steady, but much lighter stream.

“No line, go right in,” became Bajalia’s refrain. 

At least one voter was incredulous. “No line?” he asked in disbelief as he strolled in the door.

At a polling place near the Apollo Theater, voters walked in and out in quick succession. Jason Phillips, 49, said he had held out to vote “the old school way” in person on Election Day.

“This feeling I have right now, you’re not really going to get that with filling out a ballot at home,” he said. “I felt very important. It feels like a community to be able to come in.”

The process didn’t go smoothly for everyone. At East Harlem’s P.S. 7, prospective voter David Mitchell was turned away because there was no registration on file under his name at either his current address in East Harlem or his previous address in Jamaica, Queens.

“That’s a damn shame,” he said, predicting he would not be the only one unable to vote due to registration issues. “There’s going to be a lot of me’s.” 

Bajalia said she had talked to at least 10 other people at PS 7 who were unable to vote Tuesday.

East Harlem resident Ederlin Pena said she tried to vote before work at 6:30 a.m., but decided to wait after encountering an early line. She said her employer, Petco, allowed her to leave three hours early to head back to the polls.

She returned at 2 p.m., accompanied by her 20-year-old daughter Darleen Ventura. 

“She went with me to vote every single time when she was little,” Pena said. 

“Now,” Ventura replied, “it’s my turn.”

Across the East River at the Lefrak City Apartments in Corona, Queens, poll workers outnumbered voters by 2:00 p.m.

First-time poll worker Randolph Davis said he arrived at the site at 5 a.m., but only saw a few hours of heavy voter traffic.

“It was busy in the morning. We had a rush and then we calmed down, and now we are trying to see what happens after work,” he said.

Fellow Queens poll worker Jennifer McCall echoed Davis’ assessment. “It’s been a steady stream and we’re kind of at a dead end right now because a lot of people came in the morning,” she said. “We had so much early voting, so I think a lot of people came early or voted by mail.”

Most of the voters interviewed said they were voting for former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic contender over President Donald J. Trump.

“He’s going to be a good president,” said West Harlem resident Britney Bookhart, 33.

Her 7-year-old daughter, Aubree, was more emphatic: “We voted for Biden because I’m scared of Donald Trump.”

Bookhart cited Trump’s handling of the coronavirus as a reason to vote him out of office.

“If Trump knew that corona was coming,” she said, “he should have told everybody so we wouldn’t have to be in the predicament we’re in.”

While the enthusiasm for Biden may be predictable in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, there were some who said they were conflicted.

Walking into her polling place at the Harlem Congregation for Community Improvement, author and entrepreneur Judy Brown turned to a police officer stationed nearby and said, laughing, “I gotta go make some big decisions right now.”

At first she said that only President Donald J. Trump could address the COVID-19 pandemic. But then she added, “Whoever’s in office doesn’t matter.”

With reporting by Jacob Matson, Robinson Perez, Simone Johnson, William Norris and Jasmine Fernandez.