By early morning, three police officers already had visited the ballot drop box sitting on Virginia Avenue outside the Monroe Township Municipal Building, but they were there only to deposit their own New Jersey ballots.
“I’m undercover,” confided one, swinging by the box in an unmarked car with his yellow ballot envelope, explaining why he couldn’t give his name. He was bleary from an overnight job.
Joining them in the first few misty hours of daylight at the Gloucester County box were these voters: the assistant principal of Overbrook High, a supervisor for a juice company, a teacher on her way to Cherry Hill, a married pair of environmental cleanup specialists, a hairstylist, and Christina Toney, a bookkeeper, who said: “I just hope it’s safe. I hope we’re OK. Stressful times.”
It was a brilliantly all-encompassing and deliberate slice of American life played out over the course of a day at one ballot box in small-town New Jersey, during what feels like a monthlong festival of voting in a state where as of Thursday, more than 2.1 million people had voted by mail, about 54% of 2016′s total turnout.
Those numbers place New Jersey, a state relentlessly overshadowed in electoral attention by its more popular swing-state neighbor Pennsylvania, in an elite group of states — along with Vermont, Georgia, North Carolina, Montana, and Texas — that already have exceeded 50% of 2016′s turnout, according to data compiled by the University of Florida’s Elect Project.
In the blue-collar town of Monroe Township, where voters are used to voting in person at the Williamstown Middle School (home of the Braves), and where the fire department is still all-volunteer, political views were all over the place. But there was one view, expressed over and over:
“I can’t wait for it to be over,” said Dan Camire, 67, a retired truck driver who showed up in a Walt Disney World sweatshirt shortly before 7:30 a.m.
Then, a few minutes later, Tom Ruiz, 56, wearing a crisp Atlantic City Electric shirt. “I can’t wait till it’s over,” he said as he dropped off ballots for himself, his wife, his daughter, and his son.
In Gloucester County alone, more than 91,000 ballots have been received out of about 216,000 mailed out, which County Clerk James Hogan said were running 2-1 in favor of the county’s 13 ballot drop boxes over the U.S. Post Office.
The determination these voters in New Jersey, a state where the presidential race seems all but guaranteed to end up in Joe Biden’s column, nonetheless brought to their civic duty of voting was palpable, pandemic or not. And maybe forgive these voters of South Jersey for having been primed by relentless presidential ads on their television sets aimed at Pennsylvania’s voters.
Karim Fisher, assistant principal at Overbrook, voting before dawn on his way to school, recalled being in Florida in college during the Bush-Gore recount. “That was my first presidential election,” he said. “I told myself I would never miss an election.”
Ed Knorr, wearing an Eagles mask, arrived with his wife, Joyce, starting their day of work from the van of the environmental services cleanup company they own. But first: cleaning up America.
“I would have walked from here to Washington, D.C., to vote for Biden,” Ed said.
“You have to vote like your life depends on it,” said Joyce.
Equally passionate were Jason and Meredith McConnell, parents of triplets, who came to vote together, “putting our faith in God,” Meredith said, and voting for President Donald Trump.
Straddling the Williamstown divide was Dawn Gaff-Merlino, a Home Depot merchandiser, who said she was voting “proudly for Biden,” at last able to correct what she described as a mistake in 2016 that her brother has relentlessly chided her for ever since.
“I am someone who foolishly voted for Trump the last time,” she said.
More than a few voters had escaped from Zoom calls to show up in what is apparently New Jersey’s official work-from-home, vote-by-ballot-drop-box uniform: sweat or yoga pants and athletic slides. Some wore gloves.
Stacy Conrad took a series of selfies to post on social media, in order, she said, to “get my people motivated.”
As the afternoon wore on, the stream of voters continued: Amanda and Marvin Lewis, human services technicians originally from Liberia (“It’s a good feeling,” said Amanda. “Your voice will be heard.”); Charles Doggett, 54, a finance supervisor who came by electric bicycle from his home a couple of miles away, and, inevitably, the people who went home and posted on Williamstown’s Facebook talk page, somewhat skeptically, that reporters were hanging around their township’s ballot drop box. (For real!).
Hogan, the clerk of Gloucester, checked in by phone.
Hogan, having navigated some early acrimony between Democrats and Republicans over the placement of ballot boxes and also holding his precautionary meeting with the FBI, is doing his part to help the process through what he admits are “corny” videos explaining the process.
Not for nothing, Hogan ordered ballots in Gloucester County color-coded. His mantra: “It comes in white, you put it in green, it comes back in yellow.”
“I’m not trying to insult anybody,” Hogan said, “but there’s 100,000 people who never voted by mail before.”
Voters kept arriving: Matthew Birney, 24, showed up with his father, Chris, 54, both highly motivated. Matthew wore his Rutgers School of Public Health T-shirt, and viewed his vote as a way to get the country back on track fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
There was 76-year-old Maxine Congleton, who double-checked every step, and, like many, took a few extra seconds to figure out how to push (from just below the top) the counterintuitively but securely designed narrow metal slot for the ballots, as opposed to pulling out like a mailbox.
“First time I ever did it this way,” she said. “It’s OK. I got it done.”
As dusk fell on the ballot box and 320 others like it in New Jersey, Rob and Maureen Wright arrived with their daughter Jillian, 22, after finishing a small home project, but before dinner, Maureen said.
Rob and Maureen spoke solemnly about their civic duty, and said they found the drop box “a great way to vote under the circumstances.”
“There’s a momentum now and people are voting,” said Maureen. “I think it’s terrific.”
Out on Virginia Avenue, it was Drill Night at the Williamstown Fire Department, across the parking lot from the ballot box, and the company’s lights blazed in the darkness of night.
The front and back garage doors of the firehouse were flung open, and the cheerful sounds of old-fashioned firefighter chattiness hung in the night, as the older guys sat on benches and young volunteers took the apparatus out for a spin around.
Still, the voting continued at the ballot box outside the Monroe Township Municipal Building, where there was consensus on one thing: Unlike at the fire station, this was not a drill.