‘How long did you have to wait?’ Long lines, record turnout the story of 2020 Election Day in Mississippi

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Long lines and long waiting for voters at The Mark Apartments in Ridgeland.

Editor’s note: Erica Hensley reported from Hinds, Rankin and Madison counties. Tom Wright reported from Harrison, Stone, Forrest and Simpson counties. Kate Royals reported from Lauderdale and Neshoba counties. Anna Wolfe reported from Lawrence, Franklin, Jefferson, Pike and Amite counties. Aallyah Wright reported from DeSoto, Panola and Coahoma counties. Kelsey Davis Betz reported from Bolivar, Attala and Washington counties. Alex Rozier reported from Lee and Oktibbeha counties. Brittany Brown reported from Lafayette and Yalobusha counties.

Across the state, thousands of Mississippi voters found themselves in long lines outside their polling places waiting to cast a vote. Though the wait in some places took more than an hour, many voters said the process felt easy and safe.

In the metro Jackson area, lines were already filled with hundreds of voters when the polls opened at 7 a.m. Most voters Mississippi Today spoke to were upbeat and happy to stand in line, though they all said they’ve never seen a wait like this, which averaged about 45 minutes depending on the precinct.

Around 9 a.m. at the Fondren precinct in Jackson, one voter near the end of a long line shouted out to someone exiting the polling place: “Excuse me, ma’am, how long did you have to wait?” Her response, yelled across the parking lot: “About an hour!”

Lines in Madison were even longer. The new split off from Ridgeland Recreational Center to The Mark Apartments wrapped down Lake Harbour Drive on Tuesday morning.

In Canton, waits hit up to two hours at a 1,300 voter precinct, where the poll manager shuts down the in-person voting whenever there are curbside voters, of which there were five by 12:30 p.m. Poll manager Kimberly Archie understood this to be the expectation from the secretary of state’s office.

A few hours north, poll workers Vicki Jarrett and Deborah West said it was a busy morning at Lee County’s busiest polling location, the Tupelo Furniture Market. About 2,800 people had voted there before 4 p.m., they said. With people still coming to vote after work, they expect the total will easily surpass the roughly 3,500 cast there in the 2016 presidential election.

They said voters adhered to COVID-19 guidelines, with all but one person so far wearing a mask. About 20 voters used the curbside service, which was available to voters who could not enter the building or were showing symptoms of COVID-19.

“We’ve been wiping down, there’s been somebody going around sanitizing the poll booths,” Jarrett said. “I’m really pleased with the reaction of the community as far as abiding by the guidelines.”

At another Tupelo precinct by Legion Lake, poll worker Chris Murphy said they already had the biggest turnout in more than 10 years, despite a recent location change that wasn’t reflected on the secretary of state’s precinct list as of last week. Murphy said they had already received about 80% of that precinct’s eligible votes by about 3 p.m.

The line of voters at the Oxford Conference Center, the largest precinct in Lafayette County, was wrapped around the parking lot on Tuesday morning. The same scene played out at the county’s second largest precinct, the Lafayette Civic Center serving 5,162 active voters.

A few people in Oxford said they had not seen lines at the polling places in recent elections. One voter, Alonzo Hilliard, a University of Mississippi alumnus and Oxford resident, called the long lines “encouraging.”

“It’s record-breaking,” Hilliard said. “It’s just time for a change.”

Historic turnout was not reserved for large, populated precincts. In Water Valley, the voting scene was much different and calmer than the polls in Oxford. There were no lines wrapped around parking lots or buildings, but a slow and steady stream of voters coming in and out of their polling places.

Yalobusha County election commissioner Steve Cummings said the longest line he had seen at his precinct was probably 20 to 25 people but said Tuesday’s election “could be the biggest” for the county. Another Yalobusha County election commissioner, Missy Kimzie, said the courthouse was busy with voters Tuesday morning, which she called “very unusual.”

In rural southwest Mississippi, even the smallest communities saw unusually crowded polling places. But while some people had to spend more time waiting than usual, there were few complaints of the overall process.

Anna Wolfe/Mississippi Today

Voters stand in line in Tangipahoa on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020

At the Tangipahoa precinct, a standalone polling place in unincorporated Amite County, a line of voters stretched down a hill to the country highway. They had collected more than 200 votes from their 636 registered voters by mid-afternoon. One elderly man, who’s voted there for 40 years, told Mississippi Today it was the first time he hadn’t been able to walk straight into the building to cast his ballot. And he drove by three times before finally joining the line.

At one of the state’s tiniest precincts called NOLA in the unincorporated community Sontag, a voter arrived at 6 a.m. to cast his ballot, a poll manager said. Twelve out of 67 registered voters had visited in the first three hours of the day, but there have been elections in the past where 12 votes was the day’s total, workers said.

Workers at the Navilla Baptist Church polling location in McComb, one of the largest precincts in Pike County, were especially overwhelmed tending to a steady line of several dozen well into the afternoon with no signs of slowing down. They’d recorded 508 votes out of 1,703 registered voters by about 2 p.m.

Gulf Coast voters stood in extremely long lines on Tuesday. On Tuesday morning, voters wrapped around the Lyman Community Center and around St. Joseph Catholic Church in Gulfport.

Voters lined up in the sun D’Iberville Civic Center, with some reporting a 90-minute wait shortly before 1 p.m.

The lines in many voting locations in Meridian remained short on Election Day morning, the Lauderdale County Circuit Clerk’s office was buzzing with voters trying to find their correct voting locations. District 1 Election Commissioner Chuck Overby said it was a chaotic but good day.

“There’s people who are voting (today) that haven’t voted in years,” Overby said. Despite the confusion for some, though, he emphasized people were not being turned away.

“They all get to vote because they just vote affidavit,” he said. “We don’t turn anybody down to vote.”

Some voters in Meridian were confused Tuesday because their polling places had been changed recently, and they either did not receive notice or misunderstood when they were notified. But for many, the process was smooth.

First-time voter Jermaine Scott and several others who voted at the Raymond P. Davis County Annex Courthouse Building downtown, the process went well.

“It was actually quick, and I felt safe and comfortable,” Scott said, noting everyone inside was wearing a mask. “It was a calm environment.”

In Coahoma and Panola counties, voters said the process was easy, citing short wait times and adequate safety precautions.

At the Lee Drive Fire Station in Clarksdale, several voters waiting on the six machines said they could not safely distance from one another due to the minimal space in the fire station. But Patricia Cachafeiro, 53, said otherwise, voting there was calm and organized.

“It just went very smoothly,” she said.

To avoid the high traffic morning crowd at the Batesville Courthouse — one of the largest polling locations in the area — Kiffney Smith, 39, voted a little before noon. Inside her precinct, rows of pews separated the voters to ensure social distance. She said it took her only 10 minutes to cast her ballot. “The process was faster than I expected,” Smith said.

In Sardis, about 10 miles north of Batesville, Linden Leakes echoed Smith, stating his voting experience was great. His polling place, the Sardis Courthouse, had fewer than five voters inside at the time he voted.

Polling locations in Shaw, Mound Bayou and Cleveland were busier than usual, but did not see as long of lines as metro areas around the state.

Jacqueline Mitchell, a poll worker in Cleveland, said about 500 people had already voted there by 10 a.m., which is much higher than what she saw in 2016. That polling location serves 1,667 people, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

For Jamelle Banks, who moved from Atlanta to Cleveland six months ago, the quieter polling location was a welcome change.

“This is so much better,” Banks said. “In Atlanta when I voted, lines were around the corner for hours. So this is a big difference. It’s a big change for me, but it’s a nice one.”

In Shaw, Cora Jackson said the consistent activity she’s seen at her polling location reminds her of what she knows about what voting in the civil rights era was like.

“I’ve watched some of the videos from voting in the 60s, and this too resonates with some of that same kind of foresight that people feel the need to go out and cast their vote,” Jackson said.