By Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell

MEMPHIS, TN — The first day of early voting in Shelby County went off without a hitch as voters broke the record for highest number of ballots cast on opening day of early voting. By the close of Wednesday, Oct. 14, an astounding 26,839 Shelby Countians had voted.

Tallies were impressive along the course of the day. By noon, nearly 8,000 had voted. By 2 p.m., that number had jumped to 12,677. The previous record was set in the presidential election year, 2000. It was the first time computerized records were being kept. The busiest day of early voting was in 2008, the last day of early voting, when a whooping 26,877 voted.

In that same election year, 16,265 voted on early voting’s first day. It was, of course, the historic election of America’s first African-American president, Barack Obama.

According to Suzanne Thompson, spokesperson for the Election Commission, a poll worker at Anointed Temple of Praise

“I wanted to come out and vote on the first day. It’s important, and I wanted to avoid the long lines on Nov. 3. For me, a mail-in ballot was never an option. I always cast my vote at the polls,” said Vernita Barefield

(ATOP) in the Hickory Hill community reported that one of the first voters who came in said she had actually arrived at 3 a.m., to secure a place at the front of the line.

“We also received word at one of the polling sites,   a 90-year-old woman voted for the first time in her entire life. She was so happy about getting the opportunity to vote that she broke into spontaneous dancing right there on the spot,” Thompson said.

Another voter “happily shared” that he had waited in line for three hours. But at most of the 26 locations throughout the county, wait times were much shorter.

Among some of the busiest locations were ATOP, the AgriCenter in east Shelby County, Riverside Baptist Church in Whitehaven, Glenview Community Center in South Memphis, Mississippi Blvd. Christian Church in Midtown, and Dave Wells Community Center in North Memphis.

It was noted that in the past, voters have grumbled when they were required to wait in long lines. However, poll workers reported that there seemed to be a patient, more tolerable attitude among voters. Many came prepared with folding chairs, bottles of water and umbrellas to shade them from the sun while they waited in lines outside the voting site.

 “There really was a marked difference in attitude,” said Linda Phillips, administrator of Elections for the Shelby County Election Commission. “This was actually an  unprecedented turnout for early voting. And, it was extremely satisfying to see Shelby Countians taking advantage of early voting from the very first day.”

Phillips and the Election Commission staff expanded early voting throughout the county in one of the most important election seasons in decades. Early voting will continue for 15 day, extending through Thursday, Oct. 29.

“We always want to make sure that every person who desires to vote may do so as early and as conveniently as possible,”

“It is my duty to vote. I came up here to Glenview earlier, and the line was so long. I thought about a mail-in ballot, but Trump is trying to throw them out, and we’re trying to throw him out. So, I thought I would try again this afternoon. The line was much shorter. I voted already, left, and brought my mom back. She’s inside voting now,” said
Barbara Hampton

Phillips said. “This first day was a tremendous success.”

Voters were directed by poll workers to wear masks and social distance while waiting in line to vote. There had been some concern that COVID-19 fears would keep voters at home. But that fear was soon allayed as hundreds of voters constantly streamed in and out of polling places all day.

Phillips joined the Election Commission in the summer of 2016. Normally, she said, the first and last days of early voting are the busiest, but with the “new normal,” it will be difficult to predict voter turnout.  She hopes, however, that this first-day trend of high voter turnout will continue.

“There have been no problems with voters wearing masks,” Thompson said. “So far, we have received no complaints from people not wanting to wear their masks,” Thompson said. 

“We absolutely love seeing so many of our citizens get out to vote,” Phillips said. “It’s literally what we live for.”

 As of noon, a total of 7,697 people had voted. By 2 p.m., 12,677 people had cast their votes, compared to 2016, when 14,380 voted the entire day.

Lines decreased as the day went on, but numbers may spike after 5 p.m., when many people get off from work. The Election Commission will be tweeting all day and throughout early voting (and on Election Day), to let voters know where the lines are longest and shortest.