Shortly after the polling precinct in downtown Columbus opened at 7 a.m. Tuesday, the line of voters was already out the door.
Poll workers described a steady stream of voters, even during a lunch lull, with more than 300 ballots cast by 11:40 a.m. By 3 p.m. it was nearly 450, not including a handful of affidavits and curbside votes.
Ada Irions, who has worked at polling precincts in Columbus for 30 years and five presidents, said she had never seen a crowd quite like Tuesday.
“This is the biggest one,” she said. “When we got Barack Obama (in 2008), it was a crowd. But not like this particular crowd. … It’s different this time.”
In New Hope and Caledonia, some voters waited in lines outside the precincts for several minutes, chatting with friends or neighbors and taking pens from masked poll workers who showed them how to use the stylus end to cast their ballots on the voting machines’ touchscreen, to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
But the 10 minutes that Scott and Teresa McGregor waited in line outside New Hope Community Center was shorter than they’d expected, they said. Once they made it into the building, they quickly received their pens, signed in and were directed to the voting machines to cast their ballots.
“I think they’ve done a great job,” said Teresa, while Scott added he thought the stylus on the ends of the pens were “a good touch.”
During the pandemic, the country experienced huge turnout for the presidential election, with more than 100 million ballots being cast through early and absentee voting alone. In Mississippi, also deciding on a new state flag, a medical marijuana initiative and several Congressional races, most voters The Dispatch talked to said they felt the presidential race between President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden was the major draw.
“Everybody knows the flag’s going to change,” Caledonia resident Herman Smith said while waiting on his brother to finish voting. “It’s no big deal. It probably should have changed years ago.”
Voters said anxiety over COVID-19, racial tensions and other national issues are making Americans feel more anxious than usual, which is bringing them to the polls in abnormally large numbers.
“I think everybody feels a little anxious,” Anna Gaines Johnson said after she voted at her polling place on 15th Street North in Columbus. “This year feels so different. … It definitely has a different vibe.”
Smith was more frank.
“To put it bluntly, it’s all the crap that’s on the news 24 hours a day, and people are anxious,” he said. “That’s what I think.”
But they didn’t appear to be anxious about voting itself. Every voter The Dispatch spoke with in Lowndes County agreed the process went smoothly — or at least as smoothly as possible when poll workers have to enforce voters staying six feet away from each other despite the higher-than-average turnout.
“I felt very safe,” Johnson said. “That was one of my concerns. But I thought they had a great system in there. It was easy and quick.”
At 18, Grace Bowen has never voted in any election before and wasn’t quite sure what to expect, though she said she expected her wait to be longer.
Still, she admitted the high turnout and the precautions taken by election officials and voters during the election have made for an interesting first-time voter experience.
“I think it feels historic,” she said. “This has never happened before.”
The polling place at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Starkville is lucky to get 30 voters in most elections, poll worker Lynn Zimmerman said.
Around 3 p.m. Tuesday, more than 300 people had voted there. Many were Mississippi State University students, and many of those were first-time voters, Zimmerman said.
“We’ve been amazed,” she said. “They seem to be more knowledgeable about what’s going on.”
Like in Lowndes County, polling places throughout Oktibbeha County saw high turnout and lines well out the door. The line outside the National Guard Armory in Starkville stretched through the parking lot, all the way to the railroad tracks that run parallel to Highway 12, by 7:30 a.m., half an hour after polls opened.
The polling place at Central Oktibbeha Fire Station, which served both precincts in Longview, had never had such long lines in the experiences of voters or poll workers.
“This is the first time I ever saw a line here,” said Johnny Easley, who has lived in Longview for 15 years and is a regular voter. “There’s (usually) no line. You just walk up to the door and you’re in and out in a minute.”
Easley said he arrived around 9 a.m. but chose to come back in the early afternoon when the line would be shorter. It was not as much shorter as he would have liked, since he walks with a cane, but he brought a folding chair to make the hourlong wait easier.
He said he voted for Trump, “the only one I know who’s running.”
Sidney Sansing, 18, also chose Trump for president in his first election as an eligible voter, but he said he preferred Democrat Mike Espy over Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith in the U.S. Senate race. He said he would rather vote for who he believes is best fit for a position rather than vote for one party or the other across the board.
Sansing said he believes voting is crucial to bringing about change. Colin James, another 18-year-old first-time voter, and Marlon Fair, a 29-year-old resident of southeastern Oktibbeha County, both agreed.
“I voted because I wanted to see change,” said James, an MSU student who voted at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. “I don’t really know how to put it into words, but I just want to see more social reform … and I think that as part of our democracy, everything is subject to change.”
Fair said he voted for Espy and for Initiative 65, an option to legalize medical marijuana, but declined to say who received his vote for president.
The Oktoc polling place had seen 474 voters, almost half of the total registered, by Tuesday afternoon. Poll worker Kristie McGee said it was an “abnormally high” turnout.
Lillie McGee, a resident of the Oktoc area for about 50 years, said Tuesday was just another election for her and neither the candidates nor the issues held much significance to her.
Fair, a regular voter and lifelong Oktoc resident, held a different perspective.
“I hope all the young people were able to vote who can,” he said. “It makes a big difference for your parents and your grandparents.”
Clay, Noxubee counties
In Clay County, many of the 14 precincts saw long lines of voters in the morning, said Circuit Clerk Kim Brown Hood.
“One in the middle of downtown (West Point) was kind of wrapping around the building,” she said. “It was pretty long. A couple of our in-town precincts were pretty lengthy this morning.
“I think it’s amazing; I think it’s great,” she added of the turnout. “I think everybody should take the time to exercise their right to vote.”
Noxubee County Circuit Clerk Freda Phillips told The Dispatch on Tuesday she is glad to see a “large” voter turnout at some of the precincts she traveled to in the morning. Compared to the 2016 election, she said the volume of voters this year seems similar.
“Each of my largest precincts has lines outside the door,” Phillips said. “One of them is right behind the courthouse (in Macon) and (the line) is out to the highway.”
Despite the high voter turnout, she said the process went smoothly.
“We haven’t had any problems here,” she said.
Dispatch reporter Yue Stella Yu contributed to this report.