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Election Day in Harford: Steady stream of voters throughout the day as political polarization and COVID-19 pandemic drive turnout

Cars trickled into the parking lot of Fallston High School on Tuesday morning as Harford County residents who hadn’t already cast ballots early or through the mail took to the polls to exercise their right to vote on Election Day.

Outside of the school — one of 18 designated Election Day voting centers in the county — signs for President Donald Trump and and his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, stood waving in the breeze, and a group of Trump supporters waved signs and handed out bracelets to passersby.

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Inside the school’s gymnasium, rows of shielded voting stands were arranged, and a modest line snaked from the stands over to the scanning machines where ballots were deposited.

Deborah Jenkins, a 40-year-old pharmacist who lives a few minutes away from Fallston High, said she voted for Trump because she thinks he will encourage economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic if re-elected. While she was not affected by the economic slowdown, she knows many others who were; economic recovery was the most pressing issue that drove her to the polls.

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The most important race, for Jenkins, was the presidency; she said she does not usually pay attention to politics or down-ballot candidates. While all elections are important, she said 2020′s race has been polarizing among the American electorate. She suspected many more would come out to vote this year.

“I think it has kind of encouraged more people to vote, which is good, and hopefully that will continue in the future,” she said. “This election has definitely been more polarizing, so people are more likely to come out and vote.”

Voters check in with election judges at the Fallston High School Election Day voting center on Tuesday.
Voters check in with election judges at the Fallston High School Election Day voting center on Tuesday. (James Whitlow)

Jenkins is registered independent and has voted for candidates from both parties: Trump in both 2016 and 2020, and Barack Obama in 2012 when he faced off against Mitt Romney.

Jenkins said she cast her ballot in person because she missed the deadline for sending her ballot in. Thankfully, she said, the polling place was well-run, and she felt perfectly safe while casting her vote.

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“It was so easy — I was expecting to have to wait a while,” Jenkins said. “It was very organized, everything was clean.”

The Harford County Board of Elections reported on Twitter short lines that were moving quickly at the county’s 18 Election Day voting centers on Tuesday morning. Unlike in a typical election, a resident of Harford County can vote at any one of the 18 centers, rather than their designated polling place.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. today. Anyone in line at 8 p.m. must be allowed to vote.

At the Jarrettsville Fire Hall, which also served as one of the four early voting centers in Harford, voters exited the building at a steady pace. A chief judge at Jarrettsville, Nancy Gladden, said that total turnout was up this year from the last election, due in large part to “unprecedented” early voting.

More than 115,000 ballots had already been cast, either during the eight-day early voting period leading up to Election Day, or through mail-in voting, according to state election data. Harford County has slightly more than 187,000 active eligible voters, meaning that over 60% of those had already voted before the polls opened at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

More than 45,700 mail-in ballots have been received by the Harford County Board of Elections as of Monday. Another 69,400-plus ballots had been cast during the early voting period.

Gladden said the turnout was higher this year likely because of the polarized political climate and the changes to early voting in Maryland. While it was relatively quiet Tuesday morning, Gladden said she expects a rush of voters to come in as they leave work for the day.

The voting booths are spaced farther apart than they usually are, allowing for social distancing, Gladden said. Surfaces are also being strictly sanitized.

Tuesday was the first time Marley Copes ever cast a ballot. The 19-year-old Frostburg student, registered as an independent, said she voted for Biden, but not because of his standalone merits as a potential commander-in-chief.

“It is more, for me, about getting Trump out than getting [Biden] in,” she said.

But it is not only young, first-time voters appearing at the Jarrettsville location, Gladden said; surprisingly, seniors who have never cast a ballot are turning out proportionally to young voters. While unexpected, she said it’s possible that this election’s high stakes were motivating the young and old to come out and support their candidates.

“We have had many voters who are also first-time voters,” Gladden said. “That was, for us I think, the most surprising thing — people in their 70s and 80s.”

With ballot in hand, a voter makes her way to the voting booth at Jarrettsville Fire Hall, one of 18 Election Day voting centers in Harford County open Tuesday.
With ballot in hand, a voter makes her way to the voting booth at Jarrettsville Fire Hall, one of 18 Election Day voting centers in Harford County open Tuesday. (James Whitlow)

At the gymnasium of the old Havre de Grace high school building on Congress Avenue, 31-year-old Bivek Chhetri also voted for the first time Tuesday.

Originally from Nepal, the Havre de Grace resident said he wanted to keep his vote to himself, but added, “it’s obvious though, he’s been doing great for the country." Chhetri said he voted, “because I need to make him winner, I want to make him winner. Looks like a competition so I want him to win."

Charles Davis, an 84-year old Havre de Grace resident, also cast his ballot Tuesday morning at the school. He said the process went well, and that he opted for voting in-person on Election Day rather than mailing a ballot or voting early because he is “old-fashioned.”

“I’ve been doing it like this so long, I guess don’t want to stop doing it,” Davis said. “I mean, this is our country, this is our nation, it’s a privilege to be able to vote.”

Violet Penrow agreed. “I’m a strong believer in voting on the day. I feel like we have that freedom to come to the polls to vote. I just feel more confident in being in the place of voting as opposed to putting stuff in the mail. I’m not opposed to not early voting, I just like the genre of the day of the voting time," the 55-year-old from Havre de Grace said.

She didn’t say who she voted for, but said "we need people in our government to support the Constitution so that we continue to have these rights.”

At Aberdeen High School, like most of Harford’s polling places Tuesday, the lines were short but the stream of voters was steady around midday.

Cheryl Long, 65, went to Meadowvale Elementary School — her usual polling place — but was told to come to Aberdeen instead. Because of concerns about coronavirus and a shortage of election judges, the state’s Board of Elections opted to reduce the number of polling places by precinct in favor of the voting center model.

Long said she didn’t have any issues, but was told she needed to fill out a provisional ballot once she got inside. "So I filled out the provisional and still no problem with that,” the Havre de Grace resident said. “I went on and voted.”

Her concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and “the way things are today” is what brought her out to the polls.

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"This coronavirus, I’m afraid of that, however, I said, I need to get out and vote and get my voice heard and mark down that I did vote today,” Long said.

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First-time voter Emma Zimmerman, 18, said the process was “easy, it was a lot less stressful than I thought it was going to be.”

The current political climate was the impetus for the 2020 Aberdeen High School graduate to make sure she voted.

“The country is very divided and I just feel like it’s important for everybody to get out there and to vote to make a difference in this country,” Zimmerman said. “Because we need it this time, right now.”

Bel Air resident Tiffany Davis was among three generations of her family who cast their ballots at Old Post Road Elementary School in Abingdon late Tuesday morning.

Davis, a 48-year-old administrative assistant, was with her daughter, cousin and mother. She voted in person on Election Day because she knew many other voters had already cast their ballots through the mail or during the early voting period that ended Monday.

“I knew that it was going to be quick and easy coming here today,” she said.

People moved in and out of the elementary school at a steady clip, and no line was visible outside. Davis said the volunteer poll workers were “very helpful” and made the process “real easy for us.”

The registered Democrat chose Biden in the presidential race, describing the former vice president as “the lesser of two evils.”

Davis, who votes on a regular basis, noted that this year is the first that she has gone to the polling place with all three generations of her family. She noted that, “since COVID, we’ve been doing a lot together.”

“I think COVID is helping to bring families together,” her mother, Anna Davis, said.

Anna Davis, 72, is retired and lives in the Bel Air area. The registered Democrat said she votes every year, describing the act as a privilege, especially as this year is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, codifying the right of women to vote.

“I think we would be letting our ancestors down, and even the United States, because we’re supposed to vote,” she said.

She does not cast a vote solely on the candidate’s political party, but “I vote for the one that I think makes the most sense and the one that is going to present [a platform] to us that I can believe in.”

Anna Davis said she voted for Biden because “I think he presented things a little better than Trump did.” She also cited Biden’s prior experience in the administration of former President Barack Obama.

“Being the age that I am, healthcare would be one of the main” issues she is concerned about in the presidential race, she added.

Krystle Davis of Abingdon strikes a pose proudly displaying her voting sticker after casting her ballot at Old Post Road Elementary School Tuesday morning.
Krystle Davis of Abingdon strikes a pose proudly displaying her voting sticker after casting her ballot at Old Post Road Elementary School Tuesday morning. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Registered Republican Thomas Guadagno, 26, of Belcamp, wore a Trump face mask as he entered and exited the polling place at Old Post. Hedid not vote in the presidential race in 2016, when Trump was seeking his first term, because he was not satisfied with the slate of candidates on the ballot that year.

Guadagno said he did vote for Trump this year after watching the president’s performance over the past four years. He said he likes Trump’s tax policies, his criminal justice reform initiatives, his support for Israel and administration’s recent Middle East peace deals, as well as Trump’s support for the natural gas industry — Guadagno works as an operations technician and electrician for a natural gas company.

He noted Biden has said he wants to shift the U.S. away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.

“That’s a threat to me, being able to support my family, so honestly that’s a pretty clear cut vote,” he said of his support for Trump. “The list goes on how, much he’s helped the middle class, [and] I guess me, personally, with the tax cuts."

Guadagno said he “wasn’t concerned at all” about COVID-19 when in the polling place and noted he was not concerned when the pandemic started in March.

“I’m a big believer that everyone is responsible for themselves,” he said. “I don’t need anyone else to micromanage me.”

North Harford High School’s front parking lot was almost filled as people went to and from the polls. As of noon, 615 votes had been cast at the voting center on Election Day.

For John Clarke, 45, voting for Trump was about promises kept; he said Trump was the only politician to keep his promises and advocate for American workers. Clarke pointed to the nation’s pre-virus economic success and crackdowns on illegal immigration as proof of the president keeping his word.

“He is the only politician in my lifetime who has actually done what he said he is going to do,” Clarke said. “He is not part of the machine that has been shipping jobs overseas for the last 40 years.”

Clarke opted to vote in-person because he did not trust the postal service to deliver his ballot on time. Important mail like his credit card bill often arrives late to the post office, he said, and this election was too important to potentially fumble.

”When you are dealing with government, the less steps and bureaucracy, the better off you are," he said with a laugh.

This election is especially important, Clarke said, because of the civil unrest in the country and the specter of expanding the U.S. Supreme Court.

Clarke voted for Trump last time, but said he also voted for Obama in 2008 when he first ran for president. He did not vote for Obama’s re-election, he said, because he did not see the former president deliver on promises he made on the campaign trail. As for Trump’s bombastic personality, Clarke said he was voting for a leader, not a friend.

“I am not voting for prom queen,” he said, “I am voting for someone tough.”

Samantha Crone cast her first ballot at North Harford High School Tuesday, bubbling in Trump after doing some research in advance of the election. While she supports Trump’s policies, like his tax cuts, she does not support Biden’s pro-fracking stance, she said, or his posture on abortion.

More pressing, still, is the coronavirus pandemic, which has cost Americans jobs, Crone said. She believes a Biden presidency would lead to more restrictions, which are already “through the roof” at her job working for a day care when children are not thought to be as seriously affected by the coronavirus.

She elected to cast her ballot in person so she could see it be counted.

“There is a lot to lose,” she said. “We should aim for getting back to normal.”

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The activity at the Edgewood High School polling place was steady during the lunch hour, but there were no lines. Edgewood resident Mycheal McQureerirais said he thought there would be more people, but “honestly, it’s not anyone inside.”

McQureerirais, 31, is a technology teacher at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The registered Democrat said he wanted to show to support for his party, and voted for Biden for president and incumbent C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger to represent Congressional District 2. Republican Johnny Ray Salling was running against Ruppersberger.

He voted for Biden, in part, as a vote against Trump, citing the president’s handling of the economy and his administration’s former zero-tolerance policy on migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization, which meant thousands of children were separated from their parents and placed in shelters or detention centers — more than 500 children still have not been reunited with their families.

“That broke my heart, to see that sort of thing,” McQureerirais said. “I definitely want to vote to try to stop that.”

He also supports Biden for president because he believes a Biden administration will protect the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and he wants Biden to take action to ease the burden of student debt on young adults.

“All the people of my generation can’t really get out of debt right now,” McQureerirais said

He also voted in favor of the two state questions regarding the General Assembly’s budgetary powers and legalizing sports betting.

“As someone who works the education field, I definitely want to see more money go into education,” he said.

James May III, a 2020 graduate of Patterson Mill High School, returned to his alma mater Tuesday to cast his first vote in an election. He joined his mother, Diane May, and father, James May II, in the polling place Tuesday afternoon.

“Do you feel like a citizen?” Diane May, of Bel Air South, asked her son as he came out of the school.

“Yeah, you could say that,” the 18-year-old registered Republican said.

Diane, 50, expressed excitement about her son taking part in his first election. The Joppatowne Elementary School teacher said she prefers to vote on Election Day, rather than casting her ballot early, because “there’s something ritualistic about” voting on the designated day.

“It’s my democratic right, so I always make sure that I make my voice heard,” the registered Democrat said.

Parents and son declined to say who they chose for president, and James May II, 50, declined to say which party he is registered with. He teaches social studies at Patterson Mill High, said he wants to keep his political views private.

The family did praise how efficiently poll workers ran their operation and kept it safe amid the pandemic.

“It was very smooth, and they sanitized everything,” Diane May said.

Abingdon resident Dennis Badham described voting as “just something I’ve done every year — it’s something I have a right to do.”

The 44-year-old Baltimore County Police officer noted that “it’s better to be part of the solution” and choose the leaders who will make national policy.

Badham, a registered Democrat, declined to say who he chose for president. He praised the efficiency and cleanliness of the polling place.

“They did a great job with cleaning the pens and making sure everything was wiped down,” he said of poll workers.

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