As candidates in New York and Kentucky duked it out during the last heated hours of their Congressional primaries, voters faced a battle of their own: casting their ballots amid a global pandemic.
The two states were the center of the action nationally as a slate of progressive candidates in New York sought to repeat the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in ousting longtime Democratic incumbents and two Democrats in Kentucky fought for the chance to take on one of the most powerful Republicans in the country: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
After months of uncertainty around how the primary process would work in the time of coronavirus, voters still showed up to the polls in droves while many more opted to send in their ballots for the first time.
And while the true test of the day’s success will be in the final tally, a series of snafus in both states didn’t inspire confidence.
In New York City, voters are more or less used to some kind of foul-up at the hands of the city’s Board of Elections. Many told POLITICO they braved the threat of the coronavirus because they were never sent a mail-in ballot.
Brooklyn resident Jean Desrosiers is undergoing dialysis, putting him at high risk from Covid-19. He was among 1.7 million New Yorkers who requested a ballot, though like many others, his never arrived.
“Even if I can’t walk, I’m going to come out,” said Desrosiers, who uses a cane.
Several polling sites around the city reported higher than expected in-person turnout on Tuesday, as voters cast ballots in Congressional primaries, state legislative races and a presidential primary postponed from April.
At multiple sites, voters were given only part of the ballot — receiving a sheet for the presidential primary but not local races, or vice versa.
Due to the pandemic, a number of poll site locations were changed at the last minute. Other poll sites failed to open on time, amid worries that poll workers would not be able to get to work for their 5 a.m. start time because of overnight subway shutdowns.
“Everybody should be upset, especially because a lot of the workers are elderly,” said Ebony Charles, who voted in Brooklyn after requesting but failing to receive an absentee ballot. “It’s either incompetence, corruption or both.”
It was one of several sites across the five boroughs that drew a significant turnout despite the turn toward voting by mail. “This morning when we opened at 6 a.m. we had a long, long line,” said Rev. Antionettea Etienne, a translator and inspector at the site.
Sheena Enriquez, 35, showed up at a Brooklyn polling site after not receiving the absentee ballot she requested two weeks ago — only to be told her name was not on the voter list.
“I don’t know where the disconnect is,” said Enriquez, who eventually submitted an affidavit ballot.
Some voters chose to skip the absentee process altogether and cast their ballots in person.
“I enjoy the ritual of going in to vote. It’s a very mundane but kind of an important rite as an American,” said Jake Shifman, 29, of Queens.
Others were not confident that absentee ballots would be properly counted. “I’m old school, so I’d be wondering if it’s going to get there, if it actually gets counted,” said Louella Jones, 70, who voted in Brooklyn.
The worst fears of widespread voter disenfranchisement did not come to pass in Kentucky, though the state had its hitches.
Earlier in the week, some national Democrats registered concerns over voter suppression, because there were only about 200 polling places in the state, down from the usual 3,700. The cities of Louisville and Lexington each only had one physical, in-person polling place on Election Day.
Lines were short all day in Louisville, though, with reporters on site noting the process appeared to be running mostly smoothly. “I’m really happy people didn’t have that much trouble,” Richard Beliles, the chairman of the board of Common Cause Kentucky who was in Louisville observing the polls, said. “The only problem was cars [coming in].”
The biggest delay in Kentucky’s largest city for many voters was finding a parking spot.
“For hours, we’ve been hearing reports that people are stuck in hour-long lines to park their car before they can vote,” said Colin Lauderdale, campaign manager for State Rep. Charles Booker who is in a fierce fight with former fighter pilot Amy McGrath for the Democratic nomination for Senate.
Attorneys for Booker’s campaign sought a court order to keep the polls open at the Kentucky Exposition Center until 9 p.m. because of the parking problems. Voters could be seen running towards the center’s doors and banging on windows as the 6 p.m. deadline approached. (Polls in Kentucky closed at 6 p.m. Eastern, but those in line were allowed to still vote.)
In Lexington, voters faced longer lines, with reports of a wait time of between one and two hours for most of the day – not ideal, but far better off than the election meltdown that happened weeks earlier in-and-around Atlanta, Georgia.
“Maybe they will be done closer to 7:30,” Josh Douglas, an elections law professor at the University of Kentucky, tweeted. “Not good. But not 4 or 6 hours. Today has mostly been a success.”
Kentucky’s Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear came to an agreement in late-April to drastically expand voting-by-mail in the state and allow for early voting. Kentucky typically requires voters to have an excuse to cast a mail-in ballot.
Adams touted the success of the program, and said Tuesday’s primary was on track to beat previous primary turnout records.
A single polling place in a major city — even one where voters are able to vote quickly — does present unique challenges, however. Activists worried that some who may want to vote may otherwise not be able to make it to the polling location.
“We don’t know how many voters in Jefferson County simply could not access the expo center today and it is unfortunate that they were left with one option,” said Kristen Clarke, head of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Booker’s campaign set up a “Booker Bus” to shepherd Louisville voters to the poll, and the local Urban League negotiated for free Lyft rides for voters.
In an interview with POLITICO last week, Adams said he and Beshear have not come to any decisions for changes ahead of the November election but said he would push for more than one polling location per county.
“I thought the counties would act in their own political best interests and have as many sites as they feasibly could,” Adams said. “I certainly can’t speak for the governor, but I don’t think either of us ever intended that sort of radical reduction. … I just simply won’t allow it in any agreement that we reach.”
Joe Anuta, Michelle Bocanegra, Janaki Chadha, Maya King and Danielle Muoio contributed reporting.