At the public library off Palm Coast Parkway, the early voting line stretched behind the library almost to the entrance from Belle Terre Parkway by the time doors opened at 10 a.m. At the Palm Coast Community Center, the line stretched around the fountain’s railing and out toward Palm Coast Parkway. At the Government Services Building in Bunnell, the line stretched out from the Elections Supervisor’s office, along the entirety of the building and out toward the road separating the GSB from the courthouse, and where the controversial construction project that’s upended directions and parking in the complex was continuing.
And it wasn’t from social distancing: voters kept some distance from each other, but the 6-ft. rule was more fluid than not in most places, with some clusters observing it better than others. Each line’s voters numbered in the hundreds. Each was calm, relaxed, displaying none of that strife or tension feared in the run-up to election weeks. Voters brought snacks, water, cell phones, lots of picnic chairs and bounties of civil behavior.
“I love this county,” Supervisor of Elections Kaiti Lenhart said, when she heard a description of the lines’ tenor at each of her three early-voting locations this morning.
“This is awesome, this is beautiful. This is what it’s about, people getting out and voting,” Victor Barbosa, one of the candidates running for the Palm Coast City Council, said as he was setting up a booth with others. “Everybody says the same thing,” David Alfin, a candidate in the same race, said. “They’ve never seen anything like this. I think it’s a very exciting moment to see so many of our fellow Americans showing up to vote, I have to tell you. That’s energizing.” He paused. ‘Don’t ask me what the outcome is going to be, because I don’t know.”
Alfin wasn’t exaggerating. Observers familiar with previous elections, such as Sharon Demers, who was a candidate for the school board in 2016, had never seen lines that long even then, a year that broke early-voting records in Flagler: “I’m thinking we maybe had 100 people here early, but they weren’t here at 8 o’clock, they were here at 9 o’clock, and the poll still opened at 10,” Demers said. “Today I would say there’s 300 or 400 people, and there were probably 100 people here at 8 a.m. when I first came to set up.”
Demers attributes the surge to trepidation about mail-in ballots and “they want to make sure their voice is heard, so they don’t want anything to happen in the meantime, you know–for the government to shut down, stay at home or for there to be a big outbreak in our community, and then they’re fearful of coming out. I’m very impressed with how many people are wearing masks–as they should, especially our elderly.”
Yet for all the lines, the tally of early votes at the end of the first day was barely over 2,000, or more than 700 votes short of the first day of early voting in 2016. All three locations saw declines, but none more pronounced than at the supervisor’s office, where the total was barely half that of 2016 on the first day. Lenhart said there had to be some reductions in the number of voting booths at each location to ensure that the rooms had no more than a certain number of people in them at any one time. But she said the reductions were minimal.
High early voting numbers were anticipated by what was going to be a high-interest contest anyway, with Donald Trump on the ballot, and by the volume of mail-in votes, which shattered the record in Flagler this year. By today, the number of returned mail-in ballots was near 20,000–6,500 more than all the mail-in ballots of the 2016 general election. Several voters interviewed today as they waited in line thought they could avoid the crowd, get it done early and quickly and stay safe from the coronavirus. But hundreds had the same thought.
Angela Colaluca wanted to be first in line to vote this morning. She was so intent on it that she was at the door of the early voting location at the public library in Palm Coast before 7, more than half an hour before sunrise, more than three hours before the voting booths opened. She made it.
“I wanted to be first because it’s safer, it’s cleaner, and I wanted to get it over with,” she said. “This is the first time I’m voting early. I usually vote in November.” A few minutes after her, other people started lining up behind her. She didn’t say who she would be voting for, but the 83-year-old resident of Palm Coast since 1992 is a registered Republican.
Pedro Saavedra, like Colaluca a B-Section resident, said he’s an early bird anyway. “I get you around 3, I wash my car,” the 72-year-old Democrat said–and he votes. “People are more concerned with what’s going on,” he said of this year’s election. “Four years ago was different, you know, people decided no, I’m not going to vote, I don’t agree with that,” so some people didn’t vote. Not this time, he said. “You have to make a decision what we want.”
Further out in line was Michael Selano, 63, who says he’s voted since he was 18. “I wanted to make sure I got it done. I’d feel better if I vote,” he said. At one point he said he told people around him, “If this line goes into the street, I’ll buy everybody lunch.” (The line stopped just short.)
Selano said he was voting Trump, unhesitatingly. “And I’m a Democrat,” he said. “I actually voted for him when he had his TV series–I knew he was going to become president. It has to do with, you know, I’m born and raised down there, so I saw what’s happened. Sixty-three years, you saw what’s happening with the country, mostly with, you know, immigrants, and people like myself–people from other countries living there.” But when asked where he was from, he said he was “born and raised in South Florida.”
Sandra Hairston, a psychologist who relocated to Palm Coast from Pennsylvania 18 years ago, was also among the early birds in line at the library. “I want to see this man out, because he’s bringing divisiveness into this country and he’s also making people ill,” Hairston, 78, said. “This man is incorrigible. I was with DOJ for 28 years, I’ve never seen nothing like it.” (DOJ is the federal Department of Justice.) “I am fired up. Fired up because he’s bringing division among the people. Not only that, he has no morals and no character. That’s another thing.” Hairston in the past used to mail in her vote. She didn’t want to do it this time: she doesn’t trust the mails.
For Thelma McFarland and her daughter Tina Lyons, their only regret was moving to Flagler County too soon: they’d have wanted to cast votes back in Kentucky against Mitch McConnell, the not-quite embattled Senate majority leader. (Polls find him well ahead of Amy McGrath, his Democratic challenger.) “He needs to go as bad as Trump,” McFarland said. They’d first turned up at the library site at 6:30, thinking voting began at 7. They returned at 9:30.
“I have some of the health problems that I shouldn’t be here, but I thought if I came earlier I wouldn’t be around quite as many people and be exposed,” McFarland said.
“This is crazy,” Lyons said. “A guy who works here says he’s never seen anything like it before.” Mother and daughter then spoke of their vote–against Trump. “It’s never been like that with any politician. Of course I think they’re all a bunch of crooks, but this one is over the top,” McFarland said, citing Trump’s divisiveness and “calling people names. What president ever called people names like he does? Never.”
It wasn’t any less calm at the Government Services Building, but it was messy. There was little to no parking for voters even after the county administration had knocked on every constitutional officer’s doors in the building, urging employees to park at the courthouse instead of in front of the GSB. Despite that measure, the lots were full, and vehicles milled around in slow motion, looking for openings. The lack of parking would have happened whether the county had decided to time its construction project on the GSB grounds or not. But the construction created a detour and shut down the main entrance into the complex, complicating matters for drivers not used to the place. It was too much for Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston, who decided to shutter her office and move operations to the satellite office on State Road 100, leaving a few services available through the walk-up window at the GSB.
Even Jerry Cameron, the county administrator, was conceding to a constituent that parking was an issue, though his solution hinted at no longer making the Supervisor’s office a voting location. “By 5 minutes after ten all parking spaces were filled and long lines had formed all the way from the door of the polling place to opposite end of our building,” he wrote the constituent in an email. “Many of those standing in line got frustrated and left (very unfortunate).” The 60 or 70 parking spaces under construction “will help in future, but we may have to consider that this is not an ideal site for a polling place. There are simply too many people competing for very limited resources.”
The county had made good on its promise to better line the detour with clear indication of where to go to vote, however. But the construction will continue.
At the Palm Coast Community Center, where there was not an iota of shade for the long line snaking out on pavement and concrete, Tony Ponte was just emerging from the voting booth around 10:30, wearing his Trump hat and speaking of Trump like he was an old pal. “He’s the man, he says it the way it is, he’s not bullshitting around like these Democrats,” Ponte, 87, said. “I mean, he says I’m going to do this, and he does it. These friggin’ Democrats, well, we’ve got to do this—maybe next year, maybe next year. Bullshit. They lie like a bastard. And this guy, Biden? He’s the worst friggin’ liar. Forty-seven years he was in Washington, did nothing.”
Ponte had a hard time remembering the name of Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, but when reminded, he had equally unflattering judgments of her, and it got him going about Obama, who he considers “worse than Carter.” Ponte was once a Democrat. He’d voted Kennedy and Humphrey, couldn’t remember who he’d voted for in the 70s, but by the time Reagan came around, he switched to Republican and voted for him. “I thought Carter was bad, but Obama was 10 times worse,” he said as an afterthought.
At the very end of the line at the Community Center, a contrast to Ponte in tone, demeanor and outlook: “For me, I need to make a change, there needs to be a change,” Maria Tuohy said, citing the way society has frayed. “There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of social grace, people are more apt to bully everyone. I don’t like it. I don’t like the direction the world is going.”
Early voting continues at the three locations in the county–the Community Center on palm Coast Parkway, the public library on Palm Coast Parkway, and the supervisor’s office at the GSB–every day, including Saturday and Sunday, through Saturday, Oct. 31, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Details here.
Know your voting rights. If you run into any problems or have questions on Election Day, call the ACLU Election Protection Hotline:
English: 1-866-OUR-VOTE / 1-866-687-8683
Spanish: 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA / 1-888-839-8682