With what many described as a sense of urgency, almost 27,000 Shelby County residents flooded polling locations Wednesday on the first day of early voting, creating record turnout and long lines.
For months, candidates have implored voters to solidify their voting plans, given the circumstances of the pandemic and political polarization.
For Portia Owens, 35, the only thing on her schedule for Wednesday was to vote. She wasn’t the only one, but the large turnout didn't faze her.
“At the onset, coming up, it looks intimidating but once you get in line, like every minute, [or] every other minute, we are moving,” she said. “So I’ve maybe been in line an hour, so it’s worth it.”
Owens cast her ballot at the Agricenter in East Memphis, one of the busiest of the county’s 26 polling locations. The line was more than 100 deep at times on Wednesday morning.
By the close of polls, 26,839 people had voted. The previous first-day early voting record in recent history was 16,265 in 2008. Wednesday's total was just 38 votes shy of the last day of early voting in 2008, when 26,877 set an overall one-day record, the Shelby County Election Commission reported.
The number of voters to cast ballots Wednesday surpassed the roughly 22,000 absentee ballots that have so-far been requested. That’s almost three times more than the number requested in 2016. Tennessee expanded eligibility criteria for voting by mail to include those who are at greater risk of complications from the coronavirus and those who take care of them.
Polling location lines appeared orderly. Voters donned face coverings and spread out, with the occasional reminder from a poll worker.
Some who expected lines, brought folding chairs and reading material to pass the time. Due to people working at home because of the pandemic, some said they had more time to wait in line this year.
Earlis Bernard and his wife Johnnie always vote early and Democrat. They could vote by mail because they’re over the age of 60, but they say there’s too much uncertainty with that option.
“If you want to make sure your vote is counted, you have to come out and show up,” Earlis said. “But if you do a mail in, they can always say, ‘Well, you did something wrong.’”
Brian McCalebb, 37, says he didn’t want to wait until election day when lines could be even longer.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen later or what may take me out of town or anything,” he said. “So since it’s the first day, I know I can get out here, get started, get my vote in, and then I know I’m good.”
He didn’t want to say whom he voted for president, but the pandemic played a large part in that decision.
An earlier broadcast version of the is story incorrectly said the Agricenter is located in Germantown. It's located in East Memphis. This story was updated throughout the day to reflect the newest polling numbers.