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Pa. voter turnout on possible historic track: ‘People ... came to get a job done’

First-time voters, lapsed voters, and extra-motivated voters were among those who helped swell turnout in Pennsylvania to what may prove to be the state’s highest numbers ever.

Voters wait in line Tuesday night at Forest Grove Presbyterian Church near Furlong, Bucks County.
Voters wait in line Tuesday night at Forest Grove Presbyterian Church near Furlong, Bucks County.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Gerry Gaines was 62 years old when she cast her first-ever ballot — on Tuesday in West Chester for Joe Biden.

“After the [2016] election, I felt bad,” Gaines. “I said, ‘That’s it. I’m voting.’ ”

First-time voters, lapsed voters, and extra-motivated voters were among those who helped swell turnout in Pennsylvania to what may prove to be the state’s highest numbers ever — even amid a pandemic.

The historic and contentious contest between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Biden held the possibility of breaking 2016′s record 6.1 million votes, with more than 2.5 million mail ballots returned by Tuesday afternoon.

“Millions of Pennsylvanians, as we know, went to the local polling places all across the commonwealth," Gov. Tom Wolf said at a 9 p.m. news briefing. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said that she did not have a turnout estimate but that long lines were common.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which led many to request mail ballots, polling places were busy with people voting in person on the dry, partly sunny day. Many endured long lines in the morning, but the classic evening crowds did not materialize at many polling places, perhaps due to mail voting and the high number of people working from home due to the pandemic.

Though lines moved quickly and in most areas crowds cleared as the day went on, the morning rush was indicative of a palpable enthusiasm among voters.

“I haven’t felt the kind of excitement on the ground for an election the way I felt today,” said Philadelphia Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who is the leader of Northwest Philadelphia’s 50th Ward. “Today there was a certain energy, like it was a passion. People came on a mission, they came to get a job done.”

Voters who started lining up at 6 a.m. wrapped around a Center City block in the morning cold; 100 or more people waited in Devon, in Newtown Township, in South Philadelphia; and waits stretched into the afternoon and evening at some polling places in the suburbs where voters waited hours.

A common refrain from poll workers across the region: No one has seen this since the 2008 general election.

“There haven’t been this many people out since the Obama election,” said Lloyd Carpenter, who has been a committee member for the 46th Ward for about 25 years, at Cristy Rec Center in West Philadelphia.

Others were crunching numbers: 80% of one Cheltenham polling place’s 850 registered voters had voted by 2 p.m.; at a Delaware County site, turnout was 110% higher than in 2016 by 11 a.m.; a West Philly division that usually gets fewer than 200 votes had logged 397 before 6:30 p.m.

Whether for or against, many voters were driven to the polls by Trump and the deep divisions that have split the nation during his presidency.

Leo Donohue, a registered Republican who did not vote in 2016, said it was for his 3-month-old daughter that he cast a ballot for Biden in West Chester.

“She’s everything. She’s the only thing on my mind,” said Donohue, 32. “I feel like Democrats have taken more care of women and women’s rights.”

In Bucks County, Ken Hankin, 25, said he didn’t vote in 2016. But he cast a ballot at his Bristol Township polling place Tuesday because “I honestly wanted to vote for Trump.” He said the president was “making the different branches [of government] do what they are supposed to do.”

Recovering from neck and back surgery, 60-year-old Biden voter Roxanne Moore took 20 minutes to walk a block and a half from her Darby Borough home to her polling place to cast her ballot.

“I wanted to make it here because the country is divided and we need a president who can bring the country back together,” she said.

For the last 16 years, turnout in Pennsylvania for presidential elections has hovered just under 70% of registered voters, reaching 70% in 2016.

With a record number of voters registered in 2020 — more than nine million — one-third requested mail ballots. Before this year, only about 5% were ever cast by mail in a given election. Two-thirds were requested by Democrats and a quarter by Republicans; the rest by people of other party affiliations.

Full turnout numbers, including how many voted in person, will not be known until the votes are counted.

A handful of polling places reported unusual waits, particularly in battleground Bucks County. At Central Bucks High School East, more than 80% of the district’s voters had cast a ballot in person or by mail by 7:15 p.m., said William O’Connor, the judge of elections, who said the site had never seen such long lines before.

At Forest Grove Presbyterian Church near Furlong, people waited four hours to vote in the afternoon; by evening, the wait time was down to about two hours, the shortest it had been all day, said poll volunteer Meredith Taylor.

The long wait was partly due to record turnout and partly because of low staffing. The county sent more workers to the polling place.

Alyssa Ricardo, 33, had been waiting for about 90 minutes and had made it close to the door by 6:30 p.m. In 2016, she recalled, it took her two minutes to get in and cast her vote.

“I’ve never seen it like this,” she said.

At Central Bucks East, the lines were gone by 7 p.m.

“Just about everybody has voted,” Republican committeeman Dave Fisher said with a laugh. “There’s nobody left.”

Staff writers Julie Coleman, Jonathan Tamari, Aubrey Whelan, Stephanie Farr, Chris Brennan, Barbara Laker, Erin McCarthy, Mensah M. Dean, Jessica Calefati, Allison Steele, Andrew Seidman, and Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.