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Voters across Philly wait through rain, cold, and long lines as window to cast ballots early closes

Voters said they were eager to cast their ballots and for the 2020 election to be over — and determined to make sure their vote counts.

Awa Traore (front) picks up her chair Monday as the line of people waiting to vote moves forward, at Tilden Middle School in Philadelphia. Tuesday is the last day for voters to request mail ballots, including at satellite elections offices around the city.
Awa Traore (front) picks up her chair Monday as the line of people waiting to vote moves forward, at Tilden Middle School in Philadelphia. Tuesday is the last day for voters to request mail ballots, including at satellite elections offices around the city.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

As Marlene Mills-Richardson walked out of Overbrook Elementary School, having just voted, she felt overwhelmed.

The line outside a satellite elections office in the West Philadelphia neighborhood Monday afternoon was even longer than it had been three hours earlier. That’s when she had arrived at the school, about 11 a.m., with her blue folding chair.

While she decried long lines outside Overbrook and elsewhere for early voting in the United States, Mills-Richardson, 70, was grateful her fellow Philadelphians were committed to making their voices heard.

“This is great, and I lived through ’68,” she said, recalling another contentious election year, her voice cracking and her eyes welling with tears as Gospel music blared from speakers on a misty street. “People really care.”

Mills-Richardson was among the thousands of Philadelphia residents who ventured out on a chilly and rainy Monday to request and cast mail ballots without using the mail. Tuesday is the last day voters can apply for mail ballots in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia in recent weeks opened early voting locations across the city, where through Tuesday, voters can request, receive, fill out, and return mail ballots all in one stop. Starting Wednesday, the satellite offices will be open for voters to drop off mail ballots they already have.

More than 3 million Pennsylvania voters have requested mail ballots — or about one-third of all registered voters in the state — including about 423,000 from Philadelphia. Almost two-thirds of those requests have been made by Democrats, after President Donald Trump’s false attacks on mail voting soured many Republican voters on the method.

Statewide, voters have returned more than 1.7 million mail ballots to county election offices, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.

Philadelphia voters said Monday that they were eager to cast their ballots and for the 2020 election to be over — and determined to make sure their vote counts. Some, like Mills-Richardson, had previously requested mail ballots but never received them. Others were frustrated by months of mail delays or fearful of disruptions on Election Day, given that Trump has urged his supporters watch polling places in Philadelphia, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1.

Trump, who has consistently trailed Joe Biden in Pennsylvania polls and famously said last month that “bad things happen in Philadelphia," continued to taunt the city during one of his three campaign stops in Pennsylvania on Monday. “We’re watching you, Philadelphia,” Trump said during a rally in Allentown. “We’re watching at the highest levels.”

For some, voting early felt like a personal safety measure.

“I think there is going to be a whole lot of dumb stuff on Nov. 3,” said Anita Hall, 54, a Southwest Philadelphia resident who was waiting in line to vote outside Tilden Middle School.

“There’s gonna be some stuff going on at the polls that may make people not want to stay and vote, because of what Trump has said about Philadelphia.

Outside City Hall, voters waited in the rain for hours. Ava Speight, of Olney, said she didn’t wake up Monday morning intending to vote, but took it as “a sign” when she passed a canvasser.

“Trump has spread a lot of hatred,” she said. “This is the City of Brotherly Love. We’ve got to get back to that love.”

Speight said she lost track of how long she’d been standing “in the rain and in pain” (volunteers eventually brought her a folding chair to sit in), but said it would be worth the wait.

Connie Hsu, 18, a University of Pennsylvania freshman, waited with two other college students for an hour and a half at City Hall before they were told to get on a free shuttle to Julia de Burgos Elementary School in North Philadelphia, because the line at City Hall would take four hours.

Outside the elementary school, they waited more than an hour in a line of about 75 people before they got in. They all said they were excited to vote in one of the states expected to determine the winner.

“If I voted in my state, it wouldn’t have meant that much,” said Hsu, a Tennessee native who is registered in Pennsylvania.

» READ MORE: The Divided States of Pennsylvania: How one state embodies America's political discord

Outside Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia, the progressive Working Families Party brought out a DJ, and volunteers passed out folding chairs to voters settling in for a long wait. But it didn’t seem to cheer up voters who described a stressful election season — including misinformation, confusion, and weeks of phone calls chasing after mail ballots that never arrived.

By the time the elections office opened at 11:30 a.m., a line of more than 100 voters stretched down the block and around the corner. Some had been waiting for three hours.

Carol Kilgore, 64, said she requested a mail ballot twice, before deciding to go ahead and line up at 8:30 a.m. “I just want to vote and get it over with," she said. “The stress involved is too much.”

There was also some confusion about where people could vote. Ann Cherry, 64, said she’d started at 7 a.m., driving around to three places that had been traditional polling places in the past before she finally made it to Tilden.

“It’s a lot of turmoil,” she said of the election. “I want to make my vote count.”

As morning turned to afternoon in West Philadelphia outside Overbrook Elementary School, Andrew Crane-Droesch got creative as he endured the wait.

Around 2 p.m., Crane-Droesch, 39, of West Philadelphia, became hungry as he inched slowly toward the front of the line. He went on his phone; pulled up the website for Pizza to the Polls, a nonpartisan nonprofit that delivers food to crowded polling places across the country; and reported a long line to the organization.

Soon, a dozen pizzas arrived. Crane-Droesch and a few others grabbed the boxes and walked up and down the line serving slices.

Deborah Ryles, 72, of University City, helped herself to a slice as she sat in a chair near the front. She brought two of her neighbors out with her to vote, she said.

The women had first gone to a satellite office closer to their West Philadelphia homes, but they said it was even more crowded than Overbrook.

“My ancestors had to fight to vote,” Ryles said.

Frank Price, 69, a former police officer from Wynnefield, tapped his feet to Gospel music as he waited. As a person who is partially handicapped and uses a motorized wheelchair, he said voting on Election Day would be even more difficult for him than Monday’s long wait.

“I know on Nov. 3, it’s going to be so mammothly crowded,” said Price, who was about halfway through the line and had already waited nearly an hour and a half.

As a Marine, he said it’s ingrained in him to always respect the commander-in-chief, but he doesn’t think Trump is fit for the job. Like most in line, he was waiting to vote for Biden.

Trump, he said, is "not a good president. If he wins again, it’ll be devastating.”