Tens of thousands of New Yorkers flooded polling places and waited hours in long lines on Saturday, the first day of early voting, with many saying that they turned out because of concerns that their ballots might not be counted if they tried to vote by mail.
Lines stretched for blocks outside polling sites, including Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the Armory in Washington Heights, as election officials contended with malfunctioning electronic poll machines and tried to calm anxious voters.
The hurdles for voters and poll workers on the first day of voting reflected the challenges of holding a contentious presidential election in the middle of a pandemic. But many people remained undeterred by the delays and the coronavirus, some waiting as long as five hours and some rushing to get in line before polls closed.
Anyone in line by 4 p.m. was supposed to be allowed to vote, but people were nervous that they would be turned away because of the turnout and slow-moving lines. At 4 p.m. on the dot, a poll worker at the Brooklyn Museum told voters that the line was going to be cut off and that no more people would be allowed to get in line.
But a woman, Carol Burris, pleaded with the worker to allow her to vote.
Ms. Burris, a health care worker, became the official last person in line. “I could not afford to get turned back, I got palpitations,” she said. “It’s too emotional.”
At Madison Square Garden more than 750 people remained in line after polls officially closed on Saturday. Emmanuel Vazquez, 25, walked out of the venue elated after waiting in line for more than three hours.
“I’m tired, I’m hungry and I want to go home,” Mr. Vazquez said with a laugh. “But I’m just thinking about how worth it this will feel in a few weeks. And that’s keeping me alive right now.”
Recent mishaps involving mail-in ballots seemed to drive many voters to the polls on Saturday. Some said they did not trust that their votes would be counted if they did not show up in person, and many did not want to wait until Election Day.
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.
Keep up with Election 2020
This is the first presidential election during which New Yorkers are allowed to cast ballots early. The State Legislature approved early voting in 2019, after Democrats took control, making New York one of the last states to adopt it.
Sarah Steiner, a New York election attorney who has represented candidates seeking public office, said on Saturday that it was not unusual to hear reports of long lines and other problems during the first day of early voting.
Throughout the day, photos on social media showed New Yorkers descending upon polling sites across the city and state. Those images were signs of a better-than-expected turnout, Ms. Steiner said.
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“There’s always a couple of glitches. This is an event for a lot of people, and it is a wonderful sign of civic engagement,” Ms. Steiner said, adding later, “I’m happy to see it.”
Early voting lines tend to decrease after the first day, so voters should expect shorter waits as early voting continues, Ms. Steiner said.
Voters will have until Nov. 1 to cast their early 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 the next.
The nine days of early voting were expected to draw a 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.
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.
The changes in locations confused many voters.
By the time Rebecca Jones, 38, arrived at Madison Square Garden for early voting around 10:15 a.m., more than 600 people had already filed in line in front of her.
Ahead of the June primary in New York City, Ms. Jones voted early at a polling site about two blocks away from where she lives in Hell’s Kitchen.
“I’m very confused why they funneled so many people to one place. I think it’s stupid,” she said. “If it’s about the numbers of volunteers who run it, then I’m all for it. But they’ve managed it before. So I’m not thrilled with it.”
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, Chief Terence A. Monahan said.
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,” he added.
Many times throughout the city, the mood among voters was as celebratory as it was serious, despite four- and five-hour waits.
A marching band performed in front of Barclays, and at Madison Square Garden, the actor Timothée Chalamet emerged from the polling site to cheers. He shouted back, “Everybody go vote! Go vote! Don’t get out of line! This election matters!”
Standing outside Barclays in the morning, Barbara Ali, 75, said she had contemplated absentee voting because of the coronavirus. She showed up to vote at 6:50 a.m. at Barclays Center. She called 311, the city’s information line, because she thought the polls opened at 7 a.m. They did not open for another three hours, but she decided to wait.
“Sliding it into the computer is the way I wanted to go,” Ms. Ali said.
In the Bronx, Bryan Washington, 60, showed up early to vote at The Andrew Freedman Home where the line stretched down Grand Concourse and around the corner. Many people wore face masks, and some of them even had on gloves. They tried to spread out at least six feet apart, but it was difficult to maintain social distancing in the more narrow parts of the street.
Mr. Washington said the reward of casting his vote early outweighed the risk of contagion. “I am one of the ones that truly believes this is one of the most important elections we ever had,” he said. “I truly believe this is an election for the soul of the country.”
Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Elisha Brown contributed reporting