As D.C. begins early voting, older poll workers join young volunteers despite covid

“I’m responsible for everything that is in that poll center,” said Hubbard, 72. “If someone needs help ­— if we’re overwhelmed and someone needs to take a break — I can step in.”

Long lines formed early outside some polling places, including Ballou, but had mostly dissipated by early afternoon, elections officials said.

They said they hope many Washingtonians will take advantage of early voting over the next week, rather than wait to show up on Election Day, especially amid concerns about the novel coronavirus and the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service to deliver mailed ballots.

At Ballou, Leah Washington, 44, was the first one in line when doors opened at 8:30 a.m. Equipped with a plastic face shield and folding chair, Washington said she came in person because she feared that ballot drop boxes could be tampered with and she was uneasy about mail delays.

“I wanted to make sure my vote was counted, and there were too many deterrents,” she said. “They’re trying to stop people from voting, and I will not be suppressed.”

Coronavirus concerns prompted many older poll workers to sit out this year’s election, causing problems during the D.C. primary in June and spurring officials in Maryland and elsewhere to warn of possible shortages in November.

Election officials say they ended up with more than enough people to work the polls — in part because of the newcomers but also because of stalwarts like Hubbard.

“I can never say no to volunteering for something good,” said Hubbard, who has no underlying health conditions and plans to work every day through Nov. 3, wearing a mask and gloves and taking other precautions. “Since I’m pretty healthy, I feel like I’m safe.”

More than 146,000 people had voted by mail or drop box in the District as of Monday, and more than 20,000 voted in person on Tuesday, according to tallies provided by the early-voting centers.

The city’s early-voting sites include six “supercenters,” which allow large numbers of voters to remain spaced apart. Dozens more sites will be open for voting on Election Day.

Unlike in past elections, voters may cast ballots at any early-voting center, regardless of where they live. In addition to the presidential election, two at-large council seats and several ward seats and other local offices are on the ballot, plus an initiative that would decriminalize psychedelic plants.

The line moved briskly at Capital One Arena downtown, with almost no one waiting outside more than a few minutes after a busy first hour. Many voters said they had not received a ballot in the mail — in some cases because they moved this year and had trouble updating their addresses.

Rashi Narayan was thrilled to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), whose mother’s immigrant story reminds Narayan, 24, of her own mother’s immigration from India.

“I am very excited that on my ticket, there is a woman with an Indian name. This is a really big deal for me and my mom,” said Narayan, who wore a VOTE mask. “We’re really proud of her.”

Narayan was also eager to vote for at-large council candidate Ed Lazere (I), who she said shares her budget goals of raising taxes on wealthy people and directing money away from police.

Many voters, at the arena and elsewhere, said they were mainly interested in the race between Biden and President Trump and were unsure whom to support in local races.

Standing at Nationals Park, one of the voting supercenters, Erin Steele, 29, and Matt Reisener, 30, said they were eager to vote for Biden — but were less enthusiastic about choosing between the two dozen or so candidates running for the at-large council seats.

“I don’t know that there’s any reason for that; I just wasn’t sure who to vote for,” Steele said. “There were a lot of candidates.”

Reisener said concerns about election interference and mishaps made the couple inclined to vote in person. “Seeing the little message that the ballot was correctly submitted was kind of reassuring, given all the uncertainty about whether or not votes will be counted,” he said.

At Capital One Arena, Jack Ring, 25, said he would vote for Ward 2 council candidate Randy Downs because he had heard the candidate would be good for business development; he did not know Downs was running against incumbent Brooke Pinto (D).

Ed Russell, 38, said he would vote for Pinto because she was the only Democrat in the race and he would prefer a party member over a left-leaning independent. Margaret O’Meara, 25, didn’t know decriminalizing psychedelic drugs would be on her ballot until a reporter asked about it as she walked into the arena. But she decided instantly she would vote for it.

In Hillcrest, in Ward 7, Eric Nicholson planned to vote for incumbent Robert C. White Jr. (D) and independent Marcus Goodwin for the at-large seats. Nicholson, 51, said Goodwin’s life story — a native Washingtonian and the son of an African immigrant — appealed to him.

“He built a life here in D.C., and I appreciate the fact he landed here and is interested in making D.C. a better place,” Nicholson said.

Joyce Dickens, 61, walked along the wet grass behind the Hillcrest Recreation Center before taking her spot in a line more than 50 people long. She said the wait would not dissuade her from voting — as it did during the city’s problem-plagued primary in June.

“Last time I came, it was wrapped all over here,” she told other voters, pointing to a playground hundreds of yards away.

“This is the most important general election,” Tiffany Pittman, 39, chimed in. “We need to get Trump out of office.”

Hubbard left her home in Northeast Washington on Tuesday with her lunch in hand and time to spare, reluctant to be late for setup duties. At Ballou, she greeted the two dozen voters who had camped out early with a warm “good morning” before heading inside the gymnasium.

Ballot and check-in clerks were separated from voters by a plastic screen, and voting booths were cleaned after each use. Voters, like poll workers, had to wear masks.

“D.C., we’re very good about taking the covid seriously,” Hubbard said. “They’re doing everything they can to protect the voters.”

Hubbard moved to the District from Brooklyn when she was 9. She graduated from Dunbar High School and said she has voted in every election since she reached voting age. But she became familiar with the elections process even earlier. Her mother was a poll worker, too.

Back then, Hubbard says, nearly every Election Day volunteer appeared — to her — to be a senior citizen. She recalls riding with her family when they dropped off her mom at the precinct in the morning and picking her up later that night.

Hubbard was a cheerleader for Washington’s football team from 1975 to 1981 and worked for the federal government for decades. An a cappella singer who has performed the national anthem at professional sporting events, she also is a model for a women’s clothing boutique that helps Black Greek organizations raise scholarship money.

She was determined to follow in her mother’s footsteps as an Election Day volunteer and did so in 2008, after retiring from the General Services Administration as a financial management analyst.

That fall, she watched scores of first-time voters cast ballots, inspired by the opportunity to elect the nation’s first Black president.

She said she hopes the interest in working the polls this year is indicative of a new generation of politically savvy young folks.

“They can get the feel of what it’s like, the long, crazy hours, how you get the ballots, how you check in,” she said. “It’s good for them to learn what’s behind the scenes.”

Things ran smoothly at Ballou, for the most part. Hubbard carried signs outside to direct voters and made sure all staff members knew their assignments. But three workers did not show up, meaning her duties were multiplied.

“We’re short some people, but we’ll make it,” Hubbard said.

Many voters had questions. One person forgot a mask and needed an extra. Another was certain they had registered online but encountered an issue that was quickly resolved. When a volunteer asked about a woman who’d made a mistake filling out the ballot that was mailed to her home and decided instead to vote in person, Hubbard had an answer:

“She can still vote,” she replied. “Tell her to just wait in line.”

Lola Fadulu contributed to this report.

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