LOS ANGELES — The nation's two largest Democratic states began widespread in-person voting Saturday, with lines forming early and enduring for much of the day at sites on both coasts.
In New York City, lines stretched for blocks in a show of enthusiasm that defied President Trump’s recent description of the city as desolate as a result of covid-19 and the economic shutdowns that have occurred there. On the other side of the country, Californians also turned out in large numbers in a continuation from extraordinarily high rates of mail-in voting since the start of the month.
In New York and here in Los Angeles, the NBA’s opening of arenas as voting centers proved huge attractions for thousands of early voters. Outside the Staples Center, home of the world champion Los Angeles Lakers, several people passed out free water and snacks from a food truck called “Democracy is Delicious” as the line stretched into the hundreds.
Among those at the back was Elena Santana, a 44-year-old workers compensation case worker. A pink scarf wrapped around her head, her face covered with a mask, Santana had the foresight to bring along a folding chair for the wait.
This month, she completed her first round of chemotherapy for breast cancer. She brushed aside her increased susceptibility to catching the novel coronavirus in her weakened state, saying simply, “I wasn’t going to miss this chance.”
“We just have a president right now who doesn’t understand the true value of the American people, and that has to change,” Santana said, carrying her chair forward a few steps at a time as the line inched ahead. “This really, to me, is a case of good against evil, of life or death. Some 220,000 people have died, and this president really does not seem to care.”
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is expected to win the big blue states by large margins. Though candidates at the top of the tickets campaigned in more competitive states, Trump chose one of them to make a stand.
The Trump campaign sought to stop the counting of early mail-in ballots in Clark County, Nev., the swing state’s most populous county. The lawsuit filed Friday alleges that election officials have not allowed “meaningful observation” of the process.
But a state judge swiftly declined the Trump campaign’s request to stop the count immediately. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday.
Trump also took time Saturday to cast his ballot at the Palm Beach County main library in West Palm Beach, Fla. He told reporters he “voted for a guy named Trump.”
In Ohio, which had its first day of weekend in-person voting Saturday, a line of voters stretched more than a quarter-mile outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in downtown Cleveland.
Ryan Puente, the executive director of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, said he arrived around sunrise to pass out sample ballots at the polling site, the lone in-person early-voting location in the county of 1.2 million.
By 8 a.m., the line had wrapped around the building, down a block and up an off-ramp leading to Interstate 90, he said.
“I started walking up the off-ramp and thought, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before,’?” Puente said.
In California, only a handful of in-person voting centers opened statewide earlier this month, mostly serving as drop-off points for mail-in ballots. Still, only a small fraction are open before Election Day, Nov. 3.
Of California’s 25.1 million eligible voters, nearly 85 percent have registered. That is the highest rate in at least two decades.
As a precaution against a virus that has killed more than 17,300 Californians, the state mailed every registered voter a ballot as the month began, with a return envelope enclosed. So far, 6.5 million people have already voted by mail, with the election still more than a week away.
In part, the high mail-in participation is the result of confusion and a problematic primary campaign, when technical difficulties with a new $300 million voting and same-day registration system led to hours-long lines here and even more severe issues in some Central and Northern California counties.
The confusion stems in part from state Republican Party efforts to place “official” ballot drop boxes throughout the state. State Democrats have challenged the tactic in court, but so far, it is unresolved.
Several voters here Saturday, from the diverse, mostly liberal downtown to well-heeled Beverly Hills, where a large pro-Trump rally was planned for later in the day, said they wanted to cast ballots in person to make sure they were counted, even if that meant braving long lines. Trump has suggested frequently that mail-in ballots should not be trusted in the final count.
“There is something more satisfying about coming here in person because this election means so much,” said Caroline Chadwick, 27, a social worker.
The large turnout in New York also comes after the state experienced significant problems in the primary and in the mailing of absentee ballots late last month. The elections board struggled to tally a flood of absentee ballots in June primaries, leaving some races undecided for weeks.
Officials at the New York City elections board had to send out new absentee ballots for the general election after about 100,000 voters in Brooklyn received return envelopes with wrong information in September, an error officials attributed to the vendor. The problems have provided fodder for President Trump and others who have sought to cast doubt on the security of mail-in voting.
The memory of those problems did not appear to dampen enthusiasm.
In the city Trump once called home and now frequently criticizes, some voters waited for hours. Social media accounts were filled with photos of voter lines stretching for blocks.
City Councilman Mark Levine tweeted video spanning a long line to vote in Upper Manhattan.
“For a ghost town there sure are a lot of people lining up for early voting today in New York City,” Levine wrote.
By the time polls opened at Central Park East High School on Saturday morning in the largely Hispanic neighborhood of East Harlem, a line of roughly 700 people wrapped around two blocks, with the line folded and doubling back to accommodate the volume of early voters.
Several people brought camping chairs and stools to make the wait more comfortable. One woman carried a handheld speaker playing Latin music.
Rene Tabra, 64, was first in line, having arrived at 6 a.m., although the bulk of the queue did not start forming until roughly 9 a.m., she said.
Tabra, who said she has asthma, was a babysitter before the pandemic swept the city but is out of work because of her doctor’s concern for the risk of taking public transportation. Tabra said she did not consider mailing in her ballot in this election.
The naturalized citizen from Peru chose to vote in person “because I have the power.”
Tabra, who moved to the neighborhood a year ago from the Bronx, said dropping a ballot in the mail just wouldn’t be the same.
“I really want to have the feeling and the adrenaline,” Tabra added.
While most of those waiting to vote wore masks, the line was so long that people were only a foot or two apart in some spots. Around 10 a.m., when the site opened, a poll worker made her way through the crowd with instructions to space out six feet apart.
At the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the line early in the day curled around the arena and across to another block, circling back to the front of the event space.
Those in the line before the 4 p.m. cutoff time were guaranteed to be able to vote. At 20 minutes after the scheduled closing time, dozens of people remained.
The arena, home to the Brooklyn Nets, opened eight years ago and was billed as a long-needed symbol of Brooklyn pride. After George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, the plaza in front of the arena became a local marker of the Black Lives Matter movement, a frequent gathering place for passionate demonstrators.
Jeffrey McCready, 59, a lawyer in the borough’s housing court, wore all black as a nod to the struggles Black Americans face when he waited almost two hours to cast his ballot for Biden.
“I wanted to remember what others have had to go through just to vote,” McCready said, thinking of his grandfather and the long struggle Blacks undertook for the right to vote.
His choice to vote on Day?1, wearing black as a Black man, was meant to show “what I’m willing to do, what we all should be willing to do.”
He noted the grace in the democratic process playing out in his community, members of which provided voters in the intimidating line with pizza and other refreshments throughout the day. “We’re doing this in a calm, orderly fashion,” he said.
Shawna Smith, 37, submitted her vote for Biden. She lives in a neighborhood near the voting location, which has become a major shopping and entertainment hub and is racially diverse.
Smith, an executive assistant at a tech company, said she doesn’t have particularly strong feelings in favor of Biden and is unhappy with some of his record, including his controversial treatment of Anita Hill during Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing nearly three decades ago. She believes she and many others have been driven to the polls just to try to see Trump defeated.
“Things are coming to a head,” Smith said. “I’m hopeful this election will be a referendum not only on Trump but on the ideals he embraces.”
Jacobs reported from New York and Hawkins from D.C.