New Yorkers flooded polling places on Saturday, the first day of early voting in the state, anxious to make sure their ballots are counted given the challenges of holding a contentious presidential election in the middle of a pandemic.
By 9:30 a.m., shortly before the polls opened, more than 300 people had already lined up in front of Madison Square Garden, the vast majority wearing face masks and trying their best to follow social distancing rules. Less than 15 minutes later, the line had grown by more than a hundred.
At the back of the line, Aaron Weston, 50, said he was prepared to wait as long as needed to cast his early vote.
“It’s been since college that I’ve been coming out in person,” Mr. Weston said. “I didn’t want to let everything going on with the coronavirus stop me from doing it again this year — especially when it’s so important.”
There were similar long lines at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, The Armory in Washington Heights and other major sites around the city.
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Saturday was the first time New Yorkers were allowed to vote early in a presidential election, which is expected to produce record voter turnout. As many as 3.3 million people out of 4.7 million active New York City voters, or 70 percent, are expected to vote by mail or in person, according to one estimate.
Recent mishaps involving absentee ballots drove many voters to the polls on Saturday. This week, some voters said they did not trust that their votes would be counted if they mailed in absentee ballots. Late last month, the city’s Board of Elections came under fire after as many as 100,000 voters in Brooklyn received absentee ballots with the wrong names and addresses.
During the June primaries, the elections board, a quasi-independent agency controlled by the two major parties, failed to send mail-in ballots in time to an unknown number of voters. It also took more than six weeks to finalize the results in key congressional Democratic primary races because of an influx of absentee ballots.
The recent failures and reports of long lines and waits in other parts of the country, most notably in Georgia and Texas, have raised fears that New York’s early voting might be marred by glitches.
Voters will have until Nov. 1 to cast their ballots. The nine-day early voting period is aimed at increasing voter participation by making voting more convenient. Depending on the day, early voting sites will open as early as 7 a.m. and remain so until as late as 8 p.m., including this weekend and next.
Unlike in many other states and the rest of New York, where people can cast ballots at any early voting center in their county, voters in New York City are allowed to vote early only at assigned locations.
The city announced that Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center would be used as polling sites for the first time, but if voters were not assigned to them, they could not vote there.
More than a dozen police officers were stationed outside and inside Madison Square Garden, and the Police Department announced earlier in the week that at least one police officer would be posted at each of the city’s 88 early polling sites.
The police were not aware of any specific threats directed at polling sites, but the department was devoting more resources to security than in past elections because of the contentious climate surrounding the presidential election, said Chief Terence A. Monahan, the highest-ranking uniformed officer, at a news conference on Tuesday.
On Election Day, there will be 1,201 polling sites open, and officers will be at all of them, Chief Monahan said.
“The public should have no fear, and should come out and vote,” Chief Monahan added.
On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, expressed worry about the early voting process during an interview with MSNBC. He said he expected interference from vocal supporters of President Trump in poor and immigrant communities come Election Day. “We cannot have this,” Mr. de Blasio said.
The mayor said he was planning to dispatch hundreds of lawyers, city officials and volunteers to ensure that every New Yorker who wants to cast a vote can do so without fear.
“We’re going to have a strong voter protection effort because you cannot let this election be stolen by intimidation,” he said.
Luis Ferré-Sadurní contributed reporting