For Ella Manning, Election Day started at 4:30 a.m.
She arrived at the Ives Main Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, or NHFPL, bright and early, ready to begin her shift as a poll booth worker. Gloves and mask at the ready, she prepared for the soon to be steady stream of New Haven residents who she would assist in signing in at the polls.
“It’s a long day,” Manning said.
As city officials and community leaders began to also wake up, many of them were thinking back to the 2018 midterm elections. That year, the News reported hundreds of Yale students being turned away from the polls after hours-long lines — a general air of chaos. Multiple city leaders, like Ward 7 Alder Abigail Roth ’90 and Ward 1 Alder Eli Sabin ’22, told the News that in the run-up to Tuesday’s election, they feared similar disorder.
But while some hiccups were reported throughout the day, by nightfall many of these officials felt far better about the election day process than they had in 2018. Lines were long in the morning, but wait times shortened as the day progressed.
Speaking to the press shortly after he voted at Wilbur Cross High School on Tuesday morning, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker pointed out how efficiently that polling site was run. But he urged Elm City voters to be prepared for some delay at the polls.
“People need to expect long lines on Election Day,” Elicker said on the long line of voters at Cross. “It’s a sign that people really want to voice their opinions and concerns about what’s going on in the nation and also make a statement about the direction we need to head in in Connecticut.”
The mayor told the News he voted for former Vice President Joe Biden for president and filled out a straight Democratic ballot. He expressed a general excitement about his experience.
“I just love Election Day and the energy that is felt during the day with people standing in the polls,” Elicker said. “I felt like it was important for me to vote in-person. There were some familiar faces and some younger folks.”
Polling site confusion
However, as is somewhat custom in the Elm City, the day was not without its mishaps.
The most notable error was that throughout the day, various voters — especially Yale students — had to be redirected across different polling sites. The New Haven Independent first reported that some Yale students had shown up at Wexler-Grant School in Ward 22 prepared to cast their ballots, only to be told they needed to go to the NHFPL at 133 Elm Street, roughly one mile away. The News reported yesterday that the Registrar of Voters office incorrectly listed a chart of 2020 polling “districts” on their website. The document provided by the Registrar’s office did not include all of the polling sites for this election, reflecting only those used during municipal elections in odd-numbered years.
The Yale University student group Yale Votes used the information on this list in their effort to inform students on where to vote, and the erroneous polling locations were distributed both among students and through official channels such as the residential college deans. Yale Votes representative Jonathan Schwartz ’21 said his organization is only as accurate as the sources it relies on — such as the Registrar of Voters. He apologized for the miscommunications, which the group corrected on its website the morning of election day.
“It’s astonishing that the New Haven Registrars of Voters and the Secretary of State’s Office could not coordinate and communicate clear polling locations for the New Haven community,” Schwartz wrote in a statement to the News.
Sabin said that there were also a “handful” of Yale students, who appeared at NHFPL to vote, only to be told to go to the Hall of Records at 200 Orange Street. He said to his knowledge, everyone who had the wrong location was able to successfully vote before polls closed.
Aaron Goode ’04, co-founder of local voting rights group New Haven Votes, monitored the situation in Ward 22 closely throughout the day. And while he confirmed that he believed everyone with a mistaken polling place was able to correctly cast a ballot, he expressed disappointment in the city’s lapse in communication.
“It’s very disconcerting that we haven’t been able to figure out a way to make this less confusing to people,” Goode said.
More absentee ballots cause smoother operations
As mistaken voters were directed to the correct locations, Roth was keeping an eye on things at the Hall of Records. But by mid-morning, Roth said New Haven City Clerk Michael Smart had told her that roughly 500 absentee ballots had been dropped off at the site.
According to Goode, this number grew closer to a thousand by the time polls closed. While he believes this reflects higher turnout, Goode noted that this influx of absentee ballots will likely take a long time to process.
“I’m glad people are coming in at the last minute,” Goode said. “But we’re not going to have a final count until at least tomorrow for New Haven. So people need to be patient.”
Goode, Sabin and Roth were all relieved to see that the election was operating more smoothly than the 2018 midterms. Sabin and Roth both noted that the long, early-morning lines may have daunted residents at first, as social-distancing requirements caused voters to stand six feet apart. But by midday, they said, voters were able to move in and out of their polling place in a smooth and largely hassle-free fashion.
Roth said she has made herself available throughout the day to assist voters with various questions, and said the only issue she ran into throughout election day was when she had to inform a few voters that they could not complete election day registration at the Hall of Records, but instead had to go to the city’s lone election day registration location: City Hall.
Goode attributed the smooth nature of election day voting experiences to the record number of people that voted via absentee ballot before election day, which he said caused many people that would have otherwise waited in line at the polls to stay home. Public health concerns, he said, have produced well over 15,000 absentee ballot requests in New Haven — an unprecedented number.
“We had all of these opportunities for no-excuse absentee voting, and that has taken the pressure off of election day,” Goode said. “I think that is a very telling argument to make these absentee and early voting opportunities permanent.”
Making voices heard
Several residents emphasized to the News that they were excited to add their voice to what they said was one of the most contentious election cycles in recent memory.
At Cross, New Haven resident Anna Hill told the News she decided to vote in person after failing to receive her mail-in ballot for the 2020 primaries. After considering the stakes of this year’s elections, she decided to risk the health concerns and go to the polls herself.
“I just didn’t trust that I would get it this time, so I chose to vote in-person,” Hill said.
At the Elm Street branch of the NHFPL, Gabriel Mesa ’22 said that even though a vote by mail counts the same as one in-person, voting at the polls felt more impactful to him. He described it as a “real civic experience.”
At Wexler-Grant in Ward 22, resident Jim Barabe called this election the “most significant of his lifetime.” His wife has Type-1 diabetes and expensive health care costs, and so one of the driving forces bringing him to the polls was an attempt to ease the strains of these costs on his family.
“There’s so many people in this country that are disenfranchised by the massive gaps in wealth and power,” Barabe said. “When you vote in a state or local election, you can’t just think about yourself.”
Nancy Lopez, a Ward 15 resident, said casting her ballot this year flooded her with emotions. Lopez said she believed her ballot to be part of a historic election amid the pandemic. This presidential election, Lopez said, will have “serious” consequences across the country.
“This was a major voting season,” Lopez said. “It was emotional, because you were hearing from voices everywhere — everybody had an opinion. This election was more serious than others before because of all of these opinions and everything that’s going on in the world.”
According to the Connecticut Secretary of State’s office, there were 205,609 votes cast in New Haven County in the 2016 presidential election.
Vanika Mahesh, Lukas Nel and Isaac Yu contributed to this reporting.
Thomas Birmingham | email@example.com