PRIMARY DAY: New Yorkers head to polls with caution during COVID-19 pandemic

A warning sign during the primary vote on June 23


One of the most unusual elections in New York City history reaches its climax Tuesday as residents head to the polls for the final day of primary voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuesday’s contest includes the long-delayed New York presidential primary; regardless of who wins it, former Vice President Joe Biden had clinched the Democratic nomination for president weeks ago. There’s also a host of big legislative races for Congressional, state Senate and Assembly seats. Queens residents are also voting in a primary for Queens borough president.

But in the backdrop of it all has been the coronavirus pandemic that gripped the city back in March. Voters were encouraged to participate in this election by absentee ballot to avoid coming into contact with crowds at polling sites. Those opting to vote in person, either at early voting locations or at their regular polling places today, were urged to wear a mask and exercise caution to avoid infection.

The turnout was light at I.S. 70 in Chelsea, but voters said they felt safe in casting their votes, as well as motivated. Some of the issues important to the voters we spoke to there included reproductive rights, housing, transgender matters and racial justice.

Lynn Davis said she came to the polls early to beat the heat on an expected hot June day. She felt comfort knowing her polling site was as protected as it could be, with poll workers wearing masks, social distancing in practice and hand sanitizer available.

She also noted that she opted to vote in person because her applied for an absentee ballot — but never received one.

“I filed for an absentee ballot and never got it, that’s a whole other issue,” Davis said. “They’ve got to get their acts together with the absentee ballots, especially with the presidential election.” 

A major democratic primary went forward despite Covid-19 hanging over the city, The polls were crowded in Jackson Heights.. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

At nearby P.S. 33, voter Christopher Barton expressed the same sense of security over the safety at his polling site, though he noted that the turnout seemed less crowded than he anticipated. He explained that the recent Black Lives Matter protests have raised his awareness of making his own voice heard.

“I’m a Bernie [Sanders] supporter, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more politically aware and active,” he said, “and definitely, the Black Lives Matter protests have heightened my awareness of the importance of my voice too. And I despise the president and the Republican Party, and I want to do everything I can to remove them from power.”

For long-time poll worker Leonard Middleton, election day before the pandemic meant non-stop shuffling across the waxy floor of P.S. 41 The Greenwich Village School’s lunchroom floor to the hum of chatty voters and co-workers taking questions about election districts and ID requirements.

But on Tuesday, it was almost eerily quiet inside of The Village elementary school. Only a handful of people would step inside at any given time. Only one mask-wearing poll worker sat at any of the twelve plastic tables set up inside. Walls are decorated with signs reminding all those inside to stay six feet apart. 

Some voters, like Luke Ashwin Ronaldo, 21, and Katie Siegel,28, turned out to the polls out of convenience. Both live right around the corner from their polling site in Greenwich Village.

Siegel was hoping to see long lines and a packed voting floor to boost her hopes about voter turnout for November’s presidential election. Ronaldo came after his mother and siblings told him about their experiences casting ballots in nearly empty voting sites during early voting, easing his fears about potentially contracting the novel coronavirus.

But many decided to make the journey to P.S. 41 on Tuesday because they had just received their absentee ballots on Monday or Sunday and worried their votes would not be counted. Some had not received them at all. A few people stopped by the voting site to drop off their sealed absentee ballots in person, according to one poll worker.

Despite the low turnout, by 11:30 a.m., only 257 people had used one of the schools three ballot scanning machines, problems still popped up.

One poll worker complained that BOE inspectors were unclear in explaining every social distancing measure staff needed to abide by. Workers were instructed to wear masks and gloves but did not know if they needed to wear face shields as well.

All polling staff at P.S. 41 wore cloth face coverings while amNY was at the scene. And workers kept face shields on hand just in case.

The BOE promised workers that they would send hand sanitizer and wipes for scanners. As of 12:30 neither product had reached the school, according to a poll worker.

After exiting P.S.41, a few voters complained that they had been given the same ballot twice.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn voters are reporting irregularities at multiple polling stations in the borough. Several voters have spoken up about misprinted ballots, closed polling stations and long lines all before noon. There are also reports of a lack of polling station workers.

Over in Queens, activists and demonstrators gathered in Jackson Heights to call for the end of police brutality while also encouraging people to go out and vote today. The demonstration began with a reading of names of people who have died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) border camps. Protesters took a knee as the names were read out loud. Activists handed out literature that contained information about polling sites in Woodside, Corona and Jackson Heights. Justice for George Queens, which has not endorsed any candidates as an organization, also distributed papers that listed the candidates running in several local races.

A major democratic primary went forward despite Covid-19 hanging over the city, The polls were crowded in Jackson Heights.. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Some voters went to the polls despite their fears of Covid lingering. Many went to vote at IS230 on 34th Avenue.

Evelyn Sanitago of Jackson Heights, said she was a little fearful of Covid, but believes “the worst is over.”

“I always vote, and may be I should’ve done the mail in, but I didn’t so I’m here. Our voice must be heard.”

Maria Lopez waited for her daughter outside the polling site in Jackson Heights.

“I felt good that my daughter went to vote for the first time – it’s her civic duty, said Lopez. “My daughter is 18 and she will be fine. To be honest, I think Covid is over in New York, we can take precautions, but I think it’s over.”

Rich Cardona entered the polling site with his wife.

“We are trying to live and while we don’t really feel comfortable, we want to do it, go and vote, for our city,”  Cardona said.

“We have to vote because this is our responsibility as a citizen to vote and yes, I’m protected, said Freddie Ordonez who was wearing a mask and rubber gloves.

A voter inputs her sheet in Jackson Heights. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

The polls are open until 9 p.m. tonight. Check back with amNY.com later for further primary coverage.

Additional reporting by Ben Verde, Kevin Duggan, Jacob Kaye and Dean Moses

Campaign staff gave out flyers for candidates in Jackson Heights. (Photo by Todd Maisel)