BRISTOL, Tenn. — Bristol-area voters were ready when early voting opened Wednesday across Tennessee.
At 9:30 a.m., under a cloudless sky, a long line of them waited and inched forward outside the polls at the Slater Community Center.
There was an air of grim civility about the masked, socially distanced, largely quiet group. Multiple people said a sense of urgency drew them to the polls on the first possible morning.
“I can’t wait to put my vote in,” said Roscoe Lester, a 71-year-old who lives near Sleepy Hollow Road. “Because the country is at a place that’s, uh, save it or let it go. … It’s between socialism and democracy.”
He said he normally votes early, but “not as anxiously as this year.”
A few spots ahead of him in line, Deb Wolfe said that “the whole state of affairs of the nation” motivated her.
“I think we’re truly divided right now,” said Wolfe, who is 58 and lives near the Haynesville Pool area. “I think we need some clarity on who’s running the country, what they’re actually going to do.”
“We’ve reached a critical crossroads as far as where to go,” said 64-year-old Pete Jones, a Bluff City resident who happened to be in Bristol. “I needed to make sure my vote counts.”
Jones said that when he’s voted early in the past, it usually took five to 10 minutes at most. On Wednesday, he said he still hadn’t reached the steps of the entrance after waiting for 25 minutes.
“This is the most crowded I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “Even on Election Day, it’s not this crowded.”
Jason Booher, Sullivan County’s administrator of elections, wasn’t surprised by the turnout. Presidential elections typically attract tens of thousands more of the county’s voters to the polls than local elections, he said at the polling center.
Booher said there also tends to be a spike in voter registrations before any presidential election, and this year’s registration numbers were similar to those the county saw in 2016.
“But I think … our largest turnout [for this election] will be during early voting,” Booher said.
“I think people want to get in and vote as soon as they possibly can, just [because of] the uncertainty of what could happen in three weeks, after the year we’ve all been through,” he said.
Lester said he was “willing to wait hours” to cast his ballot. But for early voters who want to avoid the most crowded polling hours, Booher recommended waiting until later in the day.
“Unless you get there 30 to 40 minutes before polls open, avoid coming at the start [of the day] because that’s the busiest time,” he said.
He also recommended not waiting until the final three days of early voting, checking the weather beforehand and reviewing voting details on the Sullivan County Election Commission website before calling for information.
One man showed up without a face mask, which Booher said wasn’t a legal issue. Tennessee voters aren’t required to wear them, though he said he expects the vast majority to do so anyway. But when Booher noticed a man in line wearing a mask emblazoned with “TRUMP,” he immediately went over and spoke with him. The man walked away.
“It’s a Class C misdemeanor to display anything that pertains to the ballot when you come to vote,” the election administrator said afterward. “He cussed, but he was OK. All I asked him to do was turn it inside-out.”
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