This story was updated Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, at 9 p.m. with more information.
Voters turned out in large numbers in Hamilton County and nearby counties Wednesday, flooding to polling sites on the first day of early voting in Tennessee. Officials said turnout was at or above levels seen the first day of early balloting in the 2016 presidential election.
Voters speaking to the Times Free Press Wednesday morning at early voting precincts at the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center on Moore Road and at the Hamilton County Election Commission off Amnicola Highway said they'd never seen such long lines, and some voters at both of those precincts said they had waited for up to two hours.
Officials at the Hamilton County Election Commission said turnout was on track with numbers in 2016 and could even exceed them on the first day of early voting.
"So far at 3 p.m., we've had 3,525 voters," said Kristi Berry, office manager at the Hamilton County Election Commission office.
Lines elsewhere also were long, since there are only four early voting sites across Hamilton County, but Berry said the election commission office had the most on Wednesday, with more than 1,200 early ballots cast.
An after-work surge was expected to kick that number up, according to Berry.
"All three of the other sites are running neck and neck, about 800 each," Berry said mid-afternoon Wednesday of the balloting tallies at the county's other early voting sites in Brainerd, Collegedale and Hixson.
"In 2016, we had a little over 5,000 on the first day for all of the county precincts. We're looking like we're going to hit that today," Berry said. "At the rate we're going, it's definitely a possibility we could break some records today."
Elections officials in Tennessee have been bracing for heavy turnout in the presidential race between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Recent elections indicate as many as 60% of voters in the state could cast their ballots during the two-week early voting period that started Wednesday and continues until Oct. 29, leading up to Election Day on Nov. 3.
Absentee balloting has seen an increase, too.
Just before early voting started Wednesday, at least 7,717 Hamilton County residents had already cast their votes through absentee mail-in ballots, notching a 91.25% jump and nearly doubling the total 4,035 absentee mail-in votes cast in the county during the entire 2016 presidential election, according to figures obtained Monday from the Hamilton County Election Commission.
The absentee-voting surge in Hamilton and other counties comes amid COVID-19 concerns as well as a relaxation of some rules earlier this year in Tennessee's strict excuse-based absentee ballot request system after lawsuits against the state. Critics charged some requirements made no sense given the special vulnerability of several categories of people to the disease.
On Wednesday, cars were lined up on Moore Road in both directions trying to turn in at the Brainerd Community Recreation Center voting site beside Brainerd High School. People made a long line reaching back about a quarter mile toward Moore Road, too, and some folks had provisions with them including lawn chairs and umbrellas.
"I've been voting here for 26 years and I've never seen it so long," said voter F.D.R. Robinson, who was standing near the end of the long line at the Brainerd precinct, where he still could see the front door of the building. A woman standing in line beside Robinson said she was 70 and had never seen so many people even in the biggest elections over the years.
At the end of the line, Brandon Wyatt said he'd only been waiting a couple of minutes and he wasn't worried about the line.
"It's moving faster than I thought it would," Wyatt said.
A few steps away from Wyatt, Connie Shelton was surprised by the large turnout on the first day of early voting and described the situation as "crazy."
"I'm glad to see it, but I am surprised," Shelton said.
At the Hamilton County Election Commission office on River Terminal Road, cars waited in a line reaching back to Amnicola Highway, and voters, once they found the end of the line, stood in a queue that wrapped around the parking lot and extended into a grassy overflow parking area.
"I've been here about an hour and 20 minutes," voter Jennifer Kirby said as she stood in the sun just a few feet from the precinct entrance.
"It's pretty amazing," she said. "I'm glad people are actually coming out and doing it."
Kirby said she thought voter interest in the presidential election and the "possible mismanagement" of the coronavirus pandemic could be helping drive turnout.
None of the voters who were standing in line complained at either location but one woman, who wouldn't give her name, said she was concerned that she saw people ahead of her at the Brainerd site leave without casting their ballots.
The woman said she was worried turnout was "being depressed" by the crowd and noted "that's not very good for the election."
But second-time voter Devin Higgins said he was expecting a long wait.
Higgins attributed the long lines to the fact that "it's a really big election," he said. "It's really important."
Odis and Leatha Jackson and Charlena Williams said they were OK with the wait as they stood in the growing warmth of the mid-October sun.
Odis Jackson admitted he was surprised by the long line and the couple said they'd waited about one-and-a-half hours at that point.
There was good company and "good conversation" to be had while she waited, Williams said, gaining laughing agreement from nearby fellow voters.
In Bradley County, Administrator of Elections Fran Green said countywide turnout Wednesday stood at 1,267 in the first five hours of early voting.
Green, who attributed the large turnout to the first day of early voting, said there had been no problems.
She said she heard someone claim they waited for two hours at the early voting site at Bradley Square Mall but she was unable to verify the wait time. Otherwise, Green said there had been no complaints or problems on the first day of early voting, although there were some long lines.
Rhea County Administrator of Elections Tom Davis said the line in front of him at the election commission office in Dayton stretched out the door on Wednesday.
"They're around the side of the building and across the front," Davis said.
"We've voted close to 400 right this moment," he said, "we're rocking and rolling."
Davis said he thought the turnout numbers were due to the early voting opening up, but he said he doesn't remember lines going around the building four years ago.
"We registered about 1,200 new voters in the three months before the deadline and almost everybody that came in was talking about, 'This is an election we've got to vote in,'" Davis said.
"We've known for some time that this was something big," he said, as voters in the background on the election office phone could be heard talking about how the masks they were wearing made them all look like bank robbers.
"It's heavy, it's steady and we've been without a line once or twice, I think, but we have not been without a voter," Davis said.
Rhea County's second early voting site opens Monday on the north end of the county at Spring City City Hall, lightening the load on the Dayton office, Davis said.
Voters can find information about early voting and Election Day voting locations on the GoVoteTN app or at GoVoteTN.com.
Tennesseans must bring a valid form of photo identification to vote, though it doesn't have to be current, according to Associated Press reports. This includes a driver's license, a photo ID issued by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security or a passport. College student IDs are not acceptable.
Voters are encouraged to wear masks and to socially distance themselves from others. Poll workers will wear masks and are trained in social distancing, according to officials.
If they prefer, voters who qualify to cast a mail ballot can request one until Oct. 27. However, officials are urging voters to act earlier because completed ballots must be received by mail before Election Day polls close. The voter registration deadline for the Nov. 3 election has passed.
Early voting in Tennessee remains open until Oct. 29.
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