This story was reported by John Asbury, Robert Brodsky, Michael Gormley, Joan Gralla, Jack Millrod, David Olson, Keldy Ortiz, Olivia Winslow and Dandan Zou. It was written by Catherine Carrera.
Long Islanders headed to the polls in droves Saturday, the first of nine days of in-person early voting statewide before Election Day.
Hundreds lined up in the morning, in some cases waiting for hours before casting their ballots in Freeport, Brookhaven and Huntington Station. Long lines also circled polling places in Islip, Brentwood and Garden City.
Many voters said they were motivated to partake in the presidential election, though there are also state and local races on the ballot. Others said they had concerns about mailing their absentee ballots, which election officials say won't be counted until a week after Nov. 3. Hand sanitizers were seen at some polling entrances as many voters wore masks and practiced social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nearly 500 people queued up at the Freeport Recreation Center before doors opened at 9 a.m. The line snaked onto East Merrick Road, through side streets.
"I just think every vote counts, especially in an election that is as important as this one," said Joan Senatore, 69, of Baldwin Harbor. She arrived at 5:20 a.m. to be the first in line, saying the presidential race was her primary reason to vote this year. "I think everyone who can vote should vote."
Senatore, who declined to say whom she would vote for, was voting early because she plans to take care of her grandchildren on Election Day, she said.
At Brookhaven Town Hall, people started lining up around 7:30 a.m. Two hours later, a line of about 375 voters curled around the parking lot.
One voter in Brookhaven got in line at 9:10 a.m. and voted at 11:45.
Suffolk County Republican Election Commissioner Nick LaLota said there were long lines at nearly all early voting locations in the county before polls opened at 10 a.m. They were open in Suffolk until 3 p.m.
In Nassau County, the polls opened from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday.
James Scheuerman, the Democratic commissioner for the Nassau County Board of Elections, said there were lines outside all Nassau early-voting sites when they opened, with the longest in Freeport, Elmont and Hempstead. He added that voters can go to any early voting site in their county. The sites also have special evening and weekend hours in staggered schedules through Nov. 1.
"There’s a lot of excitement about this election, and it’s really great to see," he said.
A total of 21,451 people cast votes in-person in Nassau County on Saturday, said Bonnie Garone, counsel to the Nassau Democratic commissioner. Last year, about 30,000 people voted early in-person in Nassau over nine days.
In Suffolk County, LaLota said, 9,617 people voted in-person Saturday.
This is the first time New Yorkers have been able to vote early in the presidential election.
Enduring waits in Freeport
Outside the Freeport Recreation Center, Samuel Castellano, 82, of Freeport, was one of a number of older and disabled voters who were having a hard time enduring the long wait.
"It’s a little difficult," said Castellano, who walked slowly toward a wall, on which he placed his right hand to steady himself. "I need something to hold onto."
Castellano had been waiting for an hour and a half and still had about 200 people ahead of him.
Harriet Arnold, 72, of Baldwin, said, "What they really should have is a separate polling place for seniors and disabled people."
Scheuerman said elections officials were aware of the problem and are discussing how to address it.
There was camaraderie among those waiting in line. After Arnold tripped over uneven pavement when arriving, Yolanda Grooms, 52, of Freeport, helped her up.
Sonia Montgomery-Lewis, 53, of Baldwin, was just arriving to the end of the line at 9 a.m. She said she knew that hundreds of people were before her and that she might have to wait for hours.
But she said "this is nothing" compared to how the Ku Klux Klan targeted her late grandfather after finding out he was organizing Black people to vote in the early 1960s in Summerton, South Carolina.
"He was almost killed because he wanted to exercise his right to vote," she said, tears welling in her eyes.
Voters who went to the center to drop off an already-completed absentee ballot did not have to wait.
Franco Pacific, 45, of Freeport, said he had put a stamp on his ballot and had planned to mail it in. But reports of delays in mail service and worries that the U.S. Postal Service would be overwhelmed with ballots made him think twice.
"I wasn’t sure with all that’s going on with the post office that it would be counted," he said.
'An important election'
At Brierley Park in heavily Democratic Hempstead Village, lines were much shorter by early afternoon than they had been earlier, several voters said.
Bruce Kelly, 65, of Hempstead, was deterred by a seemingly endless line that wound down multiple residential streets when he arrived 20 minutes before polls opened. He left and returned around 12:30 p.m., relieved to have to wait only a half-hour.
"When you get it done early, you’re not as pressed" for time, said Kelly, who will be at his hospital supervisor job on Nov. 3.
Marisol Reyes, 28, waited 80 minutes to vote in Hicksville — arriving just before polls opened — but returned to a line of about a half-hour in Hempstead, where she accompanied her mother and a family friend as those two voted.
"Us being from an immigrant family, we know a lot of immigrants don’t have the opportunity to vote," Reyes said. "We want to be the voice for the voices who can’t be heard."
Jackie Obianyor, 53, of Hempstead, said, "I want a return to a bit of normalcy."
Obianyor, a Nigerian immigrant, said even though voting for president was vitally important, choosing candidates in local races has more of an effect on residents’ day-to-day lives.
"It’s important I elect someone who cares about my neighborhood, about the roads, the schools and everyone in Hempstead. Hempstead appears to be a forgotten neighborhood," she said.
Almost all voters in line wore masks. Donna Roberson, 60, of Roosevelt, said she didn’t let COVID-19 deter her. "I will die to vote today," she said. "I’ll take my chances. If I were in the hospital, I’d check myself out to vote."
Timothy Williams, 56, was in chemotherapy Saturday morning for multiple myeloma and didn’t know if he’d be well enough to vote. He also has prostate cancer.
"I didn’t feel like coming," Williams said as he leaned on his walker. "But this is how urgent it is."
North Shore Nassau County residents patiently waited up to 1 hour and 45 minutes to cast ballots at the Gayle Community Center in Roslyn Heights.
"And I would have waited three hours if I had to," said Karen Raccioppi, 55, of Glen Head, who said she’s traveling to North Carolina later this week for work and will be forced to quarantine at home on Election Day. "This is such an important election."
Once inside, voting officials looked up names on a computer— a change from the old paper books — and directed voters to one of 10 voting stations. Once an hour, staff halted the line to clean the voting booths.
Doris Hurwitz, 75, of Roslyn, bypassed the line to drop off her mail-in ballot in person.
"We should be making voting as easy as possible. Why should we just vote on one Tuesday? You should be able to vote any day of the week," the retired teacher said.
In Garden City, at the recreation complex at the St. Paul’s Field House on Stewart Avenue, a line snaked into the parking lot before 9 a.m.
Cindy Press of Oceanside said she was pleased by the big turnout. She said it shows how "engaged" people are in this election.
Crowds began lining up at 5:30 a.m. outside the Mi-Island Y JCC in Plainview. Throughout the morning they swelled to more than 300, officials said, with lines stretching more than a quarter-mile.
"I feel it's my civic duty as a citizen," said Govinder Singh, 60, of Syosset.
Shabbir Sadikot, 74, of Syosset, agreed after waiting 45 minutes to cast a ballot.
Ruth Winnes, 91, of Plainview, said she doesn't fully trust the mail-in ballot system and worries about huge crowds on Election Day. "I woke up today and said 'let's do it' and just get it done," Winnes said. "And let the best president win."
Hundreds more at Suffolk sites
In Islip, more than 400 voters waited outside the Town Hall Annex building Saturday morning. Many had to wait more than two hours to cast their ballot.
Cathy Barbash, 68, of Brightwaters, who brought a chair and a book, said the top issue motivating her to vote is equity. "It’s got to be a country that’s fair and safe for everyone," she said.
Behind Barbash was Nichelle Rivers, 48, of East Islip. "As a Black woman that’s a member of the LGBTQ community, I’m standing on the shoulders of my ancestors that fought for the right to vote," she said.
Jay Brown, 52, of Bay Shore, came directly after working an overnight shift at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. "The White House needs character again," said Brown, who is an Iraq combat veteran.
Vivienne Weinreb and her fiance, Paul Cagnard of Islip Terrace, came to vote in person so they wouldn’t have to worry about whether their mail-in ballots would be counted. Both planned to vote for Joe Biden.
"We just need to be in America again," said Weinreb, 55. "I don’t feel like we are living in the same America I’ve lived in my whole life."
A few dozen people away stood Anthony and Diane Addeo, who both wore a thin blue line American flag mask.
Anthony Addeo, an Independent who voted for President Donald Trump four years ago, said he will vote for the president again but was not yet sure whom he would choose to be his next Congress member.
"I just don’t trust the Biden [ticket]," said Addeo, 70, of Central Islip. He said he believed the president "has done a pretty good job."
"Much better than a lot of the presidents in the past," Diane Addeo said.
As the Addeos spoke, a caravan of dozens of vehicles decorated with large American flags and Trump 2020 messages drove down Main Street with loud honks.
By 2:30 p.m., close to 100 voters lined outside Southold Senior Center in Mattituck.
Tim Hall, a polling station official, said 10 people were already waiting outside when staff arrived around 7 a.m., three hours before the station opened.
In Brentwood, polling officials said voting was going smoothly after processing several hundred ballots. Voters reported lines of about an hour.
Patricia Zanela of West Islip said she was afraid the lines were going to be worse on Election Day. "It’s important to vote and a very important time for all of our families," Zanela said. "I lost my mother to COVID and there are many issues that need to be resolved."
Jim Hughes of Central Islip said he tried to vote at the Dix Hills Fire House, but he didn’t want to wait for the 500 people in line. "I’m watching other states wait for hours and hours and I want to make sure my vote is counted," he said.
Hundreds of voters lined up at the Huntington Station library, wrapping around the building.
Stefanie Flower, 29, of Huntington Station, said it was nice to have additional voting options and she wanted to be there for the start of early voting.
"It’s a very important election for everyone, young and old, and we want to get young people to vote," Flower said. "It’s that important that we’ll take hours out of our day to do it."
Shante Graham, 39, of Huntington, was voting with her 20-year-old sister in her first presidential election. "We want to vote early and make our vote heard," she said. "Even with coronavirus, we’re out safely with precautions and we have a very nice crowd."
Early voting tips
Election officials say the busiest days for early voting sites will be Saturday and the last day of early voting on Nov. 1. They advise voters that the shortest lines will be midday during the week.
For New Yorkers who have voted before, there is no need to provide identification. First-time voters who registered by mail and didn’t provide a copy of identification in the registration may have to show ID.
Voters without ID or unable to provide identification will be able to vote by affidavit ballot and the issue will be settled after Election Day by election officials.
Voters must wear masks and stay at least 6 feet apart as part of the precautions against spreading the virus.
A state Board of Elections portal also allows a voter to find his or her early voting sites.