Even with pandemic restrictions separating voters and voting booths, Central Virginians kept calm and polite as they lined up Tuesday to cast their ballots.
The day ran smoothly at Charlottesville and Albemarle polling locations with shorter lines due to strong voter turnout during early voting. Although the exact numbers weren’t available Tuesday night, the number of voters casting ballots either Tuesday or during the early voter period appeared to top the 2016 election.
Election officials expect final vote results later this week in order to allow time to count ballots left in drop boxes and mailed and postmarked by Tuesday.
Concerns of possible voter intimidation at polls appeared to be unwarranted, although there were reports of a couple of vehicles driving near Albemarle polling places honking horns and waving a candidate’s banner.
Charlottesville Registrar Melissa Morton said the city will scan the thousands of mail-in ballots received but will not report the numbers until Friday to allow counting of mail-in ballots sent Tuesday and received by noon Friday.
About half of Charlottesville’s registered voters cast their ballots during the early voting period.
Albemarle Registrar Jake Washburne said the county would send a preliminary report of received absentee ballots to the state late Tuesday night.
By 4 p.m., 5,491 voters cast their ballots in person, according to data from the city. Before Tuesday, 10,394 city voters cast an early ballot in person. The city had received 7,375 votes by mail as of Tuesday for a total of 17,769. The city has 34,955 registered voters.
In 2016, 77% of registered Charlottesville voters participated in the election.
As of 4 p.m., 18,635 voters in Albemarle County had cast ballots, about 22.8% of voters. That’s on top of 41,418 total voters who took advantage of the early vote option. There are 81,683 registered voters in the county.
In 2016, turnout in Albemarle was 74%.
Election officials have spent months preparing to hold the election amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Voters on Tuesday were asked to follow several new precautions, including wearing a mask and staying six feet apart.
Election workers were seated behind Plexiglas barriers and had plenty of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to go around.
The line of voters snaked around Clark Elementary late Tuesday morning. To pass the time, some read while others played hopscotch. Volunteers were handing out water bottles and snacks. Earlier on Tuesday, voters and poll workers were treated to live music.
Linda Hanson, chief of the Clark precinct, said the line was longer than usual because of social distancing in the physical line and moved slower because they allowed fewer people into the school at a time.
“We’ve been really busy,” Hanson said. “Every one of the voters has been patient.”
Hanson said she was grateful for the voters’ good spirits.
“People could be cranky,” she said.
At her old elementary school, Mila Cesaretti voted in her first presidential election with her mother, Christina Ball
“It felt good, especially for this election,” she said after waiting for 50 minutes to cast her ballot. “I’ve been waiting for this day.”
They considered voting early but glad they waited “to see democracy in action,” Ball said.
In the 20 years or so that Ball has voted at Clark, she said Tuesday was the first time she saw a line outside the building.
“It’s a good thing to participate in the process,” she said.
Both said they felt safe voting in person despite the pandemic, as mask wearing and other precautions have become second nature.
At Tonsler Recreation Center in Charlottesville, precinct chief Stephen Haske didn’t expect the polling location to be busy, as half of the precinct had voted already. A group of voters were lined up at 6 a.m. to start the day, though.
“We’ve had a steady trickle,” said Haske, who is leading a precinct for the first time.
Election officials helped some people vote from their cars and manned the ballot drop-off box. Haske said many of those working at Tonsler are new and younger.
“We’re normally an older crowd,” he said, adding that everybody had good energy at attitudes after the first several hours of the day. “They’re excited about the process of voting.”
Outside the recreation center, the Rev. Alvin Edwards and deacon Don Gathers were on hand to help bring calm to those voting. Their presence was part of an effort by the Charlottesville Clergy Collective to provide a pastoral presence at various city and county voting sites.
“We’re not serving as poll watchers or to engage with agitators,” Edwards said. “We’re not here to assist the police. We are here to bring a calm presence, and we want to help folks stay calm because you know with all the hype, we just thought it might be something else. The clergy collective, as pastors and ministers and deacons in this community, we believe we have a role as leadership in terms of providing an example of proper behavior.”
Gathers and Edwards voted early.
Six teams of clergy members rotated throughout the precincts during the day. By the afternoon, Edwards hadn’t heard of any issues.
“There’s no reason to get up in the air about this election,” Gathers said. “You exercise your rights as a citizen of the United States to vote your preference. We want everybody to feel calm and relaxed, and that they don’t feel threatened.”
At Brownsville Elementary School in Crozet, Allen Freeman of the Albemarle Democrats said the day was “slow; really, really slow.”
At least in the Brownsville precinct, it appears voters chose to send in their ballots by mail. County election workers said only one person had used the secure drop box as of about 2:30 p.m.
Voters were greeted with fewer campaign workers than usual and were offered a pen before entering the school, rather than using one in the polling place.
Ty Chambers, precinct chief at Brownsville, said about 50% of the precinct’s voters cast a ballot early and about half of the remaining voters already had come through.
Voters were only greeted with a line once — when polls opened at 6 a.m.
“It’s definitely been dramatically slow compared to a normal presidential election,” Chambers said.
Chambers said the day was going “very smooth,” with no issues inside or outside of the polling place and voters coming in spurts.
At Crozet Elementary School, voters were trickling in through the afternoon. An election worker said fewer than 10 people had put their ballot in the drop box, opting instead to just vote in person.
The quiet afternoon at the school was only broken occasionally as vehicles with flags supporting President Donald Trump drove by and honked at the party volunteers.
At Albemarle High School, volunteers said the day’s turnout was slow but expected.
For first-time voter Raylaja Waller, not having to wait was more encouraging for her and made the whole process more accessible.
“It was a quick and speedy process,” she said. “I didn’t feel pressure to vote.”
She thought voting would be on computers, so she was glad to see the paper ballots.
“I’m old-fashioned,” she said.
On Monday, University of Virginia President Jim Ryan exhorted students and staff to vote, reminded them that the election’s outcome might not be known for days or weeks and encouraged them to follow pandemic safety protocols if protesting or demonstrating.
“The diversity of ideas and perspectives people bring to UVa is one of our greatest strengths. I have no doubt that those ideas and perspectives will be shared vigorously in the coming weeks, as they should be,” Ryan wrote. “We will all be better off if we approach those conversations as opportunities to learn from each other and resist the urge to diminish or demean people with whom we disagree.”
Ryan said the unique issues surrounding this election could lead to demonstrations or protests and recognized students’ rights to participate, but advised them to follow COVID-19 precautions.
“No matter the outcome, it is possible that members of our community will exercise their constitutional rights to free assembly and expression through peaceful protest or demonstration. If this occurs and you choose to participate, please remember to wear a mask and maintain physical distancing,” he wrote.