As I think back on all that happened in the last few days, my attention drifts to the people standing on the sidewalk across the street from my second-floor apartment here in Brooklyn. I could see them through the big plate glass window in my living room. They stood there, through three solid days of rain, usually with umbrella in one hand, smartphone in the other, heads down, masks on.
They were doing something that was new to New York State but has arrived in most of the country: early voting.
The pandemic has accelerated a change that was already underway in fits and starts. Oregon, as with quite a few other trends such as assisted suicide, was first. Its voters approved all mail-in voting in 1998. Now in this election, 45 states allowed some combination of mail and in-person voting. Specifics vary because as we are continually reminded, states control elections, even presidential ones.
The polling place across from my home is in an old armory, a massive building that takes up almost an entire city block. It looks like a brick airplane hanger. The structure was designed to resemble a medieval castle and does, with turrets and slits for mythical archers to rain arrows down on passersby.
The 14th Regiment Armory, as it is officially titled, is now principally used as a YMCA and a homeless shelter, but when built in the 1890s, it had a more sobering function: mob-suppression and riot-quelling, including the control of labor unrest. New York State and its cities built scores of these massive armories, mostly between the Civil War and World War I. When unrest happened, volunteer militias would flood the streets. New York CIty was particularly known for its periodic riots, such as the Orange riots between Protestants and Catholics in 1870 and 1871. Such concerns must have been prominent indeed for cities and states to build so many of these massive structures, at a time when government was much smaller in size.
Few people are aware of this history now and seem to give little thought as to why these edifices dot our urban landscape. About 75 of them were built in the New York metropolitan area alone. Now they are largely gymnasiums, homeless shelters and art showcases.
Interior of the 14th Regiment Armory in New York City (Photo: Alex Marshall)
There were and still are concerns that this presidential election would itself involve some sort of violent unrest. President Trump himself has already used the word “fraud,” without proof, to describe the absentee and mail-in ballot process, thus paving the way at least emotionally for turmoil. So the choice of an old armory as a polling place may end up being grimly appropriate. I hope not.
This year, the armory was one of 88 polling sites in New York City for early voting. Lines were constant even in the rain. The lines were blamed on a combination of inadequate machinery, staffing and preparation. But there were outpourings of pride in the capacity of people to stand in line in foul weather to do their civic duty, although it remains true that someone in an official capacity didn’t do their job well enough. One shouldn’t have to wait in line for hours to vote. Still, they did it, and that means something.
The New York City Board of Elections controls and sets up early voting and absentee balloting. Both political parties run it, and award its jobs by patronage. As the spotlight has turned to the long lines under its management, there have been renewed calls for its reform.
This board may or may not be reformed, but I would bet that early voting is here to stay in New York, and across the country. As people have found in Oregon, voting by mail or in person over a period of weeks is easier. Why go back to election-day-only voting? Democrats have embraced early voting, Republicans not so much. It does appear to boost turnout, which Republicans have generally opposed. Still, I suspect legislators will give into what seems to be a growing consensus of the people.
There’s no question early voting does alter campaigns. An October surprise, whether positive or negative for any candidate, won’t mean as much if half the electorate has already voted.
The lines to vote in my neighborhood persisted for a week; then, as the rain stopped and the sun came out, they disappeared. I saw only an empty sidewalk. Apparently everyone who wanted to vote early had done so. This held true even on the weekend before the election, when you might expect to have the longest lines. On Election Day itself, I sauntered into the armory’s enormous hall with its lines of voting machines. There was no one there, save for the clerks without any voters to process.
So in New York City at least, this is what early voting looked like this year: a big crowd in the preceding days, not so much on the day itself.
As the ballot counting continued I remained hopeful that the fears of unrest would prove unjustified. We all want to win but in a democracy, which is a game very much worth playing, the goal is to keep the game going, so we can play again, another day. Somehow the 14th Regiment Armory and its long history keep that goal prominent in my mind.