Election 2020

Lines were so long at West Philly polls that some people left without voting

“It would have been great to make it home and see my kids before they went to sleep,” said one voter who stayed.

People waiting to vote spilled into the main church area at a West Philly polling place

People waiting to vote spilled into the main church area at a West Philly polling place

Willa Rowan

Residents of West Philadelphia were met with unprecedentedly long lines as they attempted to cast their ballots Tuesday night.

The delays were especially lengthy at Elmwood Community Methodist Church, about a block southwest of Clark Park, where voters waited for up to two hours to cast a ballot. Neighbors lounged in pews, leaned on church steps and scrolled on their phones to kill time.

A number of frustrated people simply left before they even made it to the voting machines. Many of those who stayed said they had never before waited in line so long to exercise their civic duty.

“It was a really, really, really, slow moving line,” Naomi Goldstein said as she walked out. “It would have been great to make it home and see my kids before they went to sleep.”


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About a half an hour after the polls closed, roughly 30 people were still waiting to vote. The judges of election announced the option to cast a vote by paper ballot, skipping the touchscreen machines entirely. This was after one of the voters who had left about an hour earlier — due to hunger, she said — had requested a paper ballot and been denied.

Willa Rowan has voted at Elmwood Community Methodist in every election since 2016.

“I’ve never seen them have to open up the main church area [to accommodate the crowds] before,” she said.

Throughout Election Day, Philly’s brand new touchscreen voting machines created snags across the city. At the same time, voter turnout appeared unusually high for a year with no big statewide or national races, according to Sixty-Six Wards, a blog known for accurately predicting turnout via a combination of voter feedback and algorithms.

Bianca Fiscella, a 40-year-old resident of Squirrel Hill who voted at the Renaissance Health Care and Rehabilitation Center on Kingsessing Avenue, said she had never seen lines so long in her 12 years of voting in West Philly.

“I vote in every election, so twice a year,” Fiscella said. “Usually on off years it’s half an hour. This time it took me three times as long. I got there at 7 o’clock right after work, and didn’t leave until 8:30. There were still people in line.”

“It has to be the machines!” Fiscella said, noting that she found the new system easy, but also that she “came with a plan.”

Emma Tramble, who runs a Black voting advocacy group in the city, said there’s been a surge of voter turnout in the neighborhood since District Attorney Larry Krasner was on the ballot in 2017. She attributed crowds this time around to interest in Working Families Party candidates Kendra Brooks and Nicholas O’Rourke, who both ran for City Council at-large. (Brooks pulled off a historic win.)

Tramble said she overheard a handful of people asking questions from the voting booths, wanting to know more about judge retention, for example. “They’re voting out of civic duty, but they’re not civically trained,” she said. “You don’t just show up at the polls — that’s not being an impactful voter.”

A poll worker at Elmwood Community Methodist Church who spoke on condition of anonymity said the new machines slowed things down substantially.

“Part of it is that people aren’t used to these new machines. And part of it is we only have two machines,” the worker said. The number of voting machines assigned to each district is determined by the number of registered voters there, but Deputy City Commissioner Tim Dowing said voter turnout at the last election is also taken into account. The poll worker said both divisions in that location have especially high turnout.

“We get great turnout which is incredible for democracy. Unfortunately, because we only have two machines, we are only able to have two people voting at a time” the poll worker said. “I don’t know why we don’t get three machines.”

Not every voter at the polling place was upset about the long wait time. Binh and John Applegate spent an hour in line.

“[I’m] encouraged that a lot of people are coming out,” John Applegate said. “We probably need more machines here to match the increase in voting, but it’s good to see.”

Want some more? Explore other Election 2020 stories.

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