NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Moms carried small children on their hips while the pre-teens looked around in disgust. Elderly women moved ahead to sit down while their husbands kept their place in line. Younger men and women spoke in hushed tones. Though crowded, nobody wanted to leave and miss their chance.
Early Christmas shopping? Nope; the line that stretched around the inside lobby of Laman Library held hundreds of citizens taking the opportunity to vote early as Arkansas’ polls opened Monday, Oct. 20.
I arrived around 11:10 a.m. after purchasing $2.23 gas at the Indian Hills Kroger on John F. Kennedy Boulevard. I thought the gas line was long, but I wasn’t prepared for the line to vote. The last time I practiced early voting, it was an in-and-out affair as very few people took advantage.
That’s not the case this year. Luckily, I kept speaking with a corrections’ officer through the wait, passing the time and being continually amazed at the numbers of people who kept pouring in the doors. I’m sure he said something about the turnout first, maybe along the lines of “This just shows people want a change.” I just remember saying it did my heart good to see so many people wanting to exercise their Constitutional right.
We discussed the issues while moving inch-by-inch, around the outside wall while trying not to disturb the library patrons working on the computers but having no choice but to glance at their computer screens as we moseyed by. A middle-aged woman tried breaking in line. No one said anything to her, but she must have gotten hot under the collar as the stares could’ve sent knives into her back; she finally moved to the end of the line, all the way back across the lobby.
As 11:15 stretched to 12:20 and we’d made it but halfway around the lobby, I decided it’d be a good idea to call work and let them know I might be late. “It shouldn’t take too long. Now that I’m here, I want to make sure I vote,” I told Amy Meeks, the secretary of Arts & Humanities at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She replied that it was not a problem and she’d let the dean know.
It takes roughly an hour-and-a-half to two hours for the 100-mile drive between North Little Rock and Monticello. I knew I’d be pushing it, but I’d already stood in line this long. Usually, I am not the type to wait in line at a grocery store; I’ll leave the buggy and come back later. The only similar-type lines I’ve ever found worth the wait were for student tickets to the University of Tennessee-University of Arkansas football game in 1998 and for student refund checks while an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. But to vote? I feel this election undoubtedly deserves the same rapt attention as refund checks and football tickets.
Every now and again, the line would start moving and I’m thinking, “OK, here we go; it’s just around the corner.” As we rounded the corner by 12:45, we stepped into a room and understood why it felt like stop-n-go holiday traffic. Inside the room where people were voting electronically, two separate lines zig-zagged to move citizens along like cattle.
A lady walked up and handed forms for each of us to sign, indicating we planned to vote early for the Nov. 4 election. She informed us that the polls open at 7:30 a.m. on election day, but didn’t open until 10 a.m. before closing at 6 p.m. in the two weeks of early voting. When I asked how many people she had seen in the two and a half hours since opening today, she seemed startled before replying, “Hundreds.”
Election official Tim Hollis kept order in the room. Masking tape clearly marked the lanes and how people should enter and exit. A gentleman in front of me asked if Hollis had been in the military. Hollis smiled then joked that he’d hardly had time to use the restroom, and didn’t know when he’d find time to eat lunch. He told us that anyone who arrived by 6 p.m. would be allowed to vote, but everyone else would have to come back the next day. He said they had been warned that this would be a historic turnout and he’d tried to plan.
“We need more machines,” Hollis said almost defensively. “I asked for 10.”
We turned to look at the five machines in use, then thanked our lucky stars that we’d made it before the lunch rush. The room of the serpentine lines, ID checkers and five machines easily held over 100 people. I looked through the small windows in the doors to see the line still stretching back to where I’d started nearly two hours previous.
At a small table next to my spot in line, election official Sue Daniel tried to put a positive spin on the turnout.
“It’s been like this all day,” Daniel told a citizen. “They were here hanging on the doors when the doors opened this morning.”
Maybe the huge turnout today indicates fewer people will wait until Nov. 4? Hollis smiles with a wistful look before turning away to speak with a reporter with notebook in hand. He repeats his wish that more machines had been provided to this location; I hope she got a good story, but I don’t see any photographers around.
The line begins moving again and now we’ve made it to the woman who checks our driver’s licenses prior to our receiving the number of the ballot we use. I crack a joke:
“They’re just making sure we really want to vote today. If the lines were this long to get married, I bet we’d have fewer divorces.”
The man in front of me cackles; the man from corrections who stands behind me now turns away to begin talking with a young woman. He spots his wife finally entering the door to the room and notes that he could have called to let her know, but he’d left his phone in the car thinking it would only take a minute to vote.
That starts me to thinking about the sandwich and Dr. Pepper I left in the truck. I, too, thought it’d be a lot quicker than this. I hope the sandwich doesn’t get soggy, but I’m sure the drink will be warm as I seldom use ice anyway. As the line moves and I stand in front of the lady who will provide my ballot number, I notice she keeps snacks and a cup that would hold a half-gallon of liquid near her station at the computer.
“You’ve done this before,” I note. She smiles, double-checks the paper I carry to make sure I’ve been properly identified, then hands back the paper with my ballot number and instructions to jump back in the last serpentine line, what I’ll call the home stretch. By now, it’s 1:30 and I’m beginning to wonder if I can even make it to Monticello in time.
The corrections’ officer keeps me informed of the time throughout this process. His office plans to give everyone three hours to vote. I wonder how many businesses operate like this; I figure some people will be S-O-L due to the time it takes. I mention I could speed to Monticello to try and make the 2:30 meeting. He reminds me that the police presence tends to increase on the city streets, highways and interstates as election day nears. Guess this has become a personal day.
But I’ve waited this long. I can see the machines ahead, manned by people who average 10 minutes on their ballots if they don’t get flustered. There’s not any privacy from the wandering eyes of people walking in the doors. A few people stand near to help those who cannot understand the ballot wording or who may just be afraid of electronic voting. Considering I’ve seen “Hacking Democracy,” I know I’m afraid, but at this point, I just want to get it over with.
For a moment, I’m in a daydream, thinking about all of the opportunities I’ve had to vote in my lifetime. I take voting seriously, i.e. I vote every chance I get. This election seems to have been going on for two years and I’m so tired of it. After pulling up my ballot online, I stayed up till 3 a.m. making sure I understood my choices for alderman and county judge. I already made my presidential choice some time ago, and had even determined my position on the state ballot issues prior to the Election Issues Forum hosted by UAM. I did not want to … no, I could not wait any longer to cast my ballot for this election. Why don’t they have the fast-checkout line (like the grocery stores) for people who actually prepared? When will it end?
About that time I come out of the haze as my peripheral vision notices waving arms. A slightly irritated-looking poll worker steps toward me in an official manner that makes me realize I am now the one causing the bottleneck.
Sheepishly I grin and move to the electronic ballot box, take out my paper of choices and make my vote within about three-to-four minutes. I turn, receive my sticker noting, “I Voted,” and head out to the car and my old sandwich. It’s 2 p.m.; I call the dean and ask him to send my regrets for being unable to make the meeting.
As I leave the crowded parking lot, I notice more people still coming. I feel a surge of pride as an American that so many would make sure they get the chance to vote by beating the rush. I wonder if this will be the year that everyone feels the need to make their voices heard through the power of the ballot.
I only know the early returns look good.