The line of voters in this town hobbled by Hurricane Matthew’s flooding started forming hours before the site opened late Thursday morning.
These Cumberland County residents joined thousands of people from around the state to cast ballots the first day of early voting.
Some were voting early out of habit. Others said they were eager to have their say in an important election. For others, voting was the signal that an agonizing campaign season is near an end.
The State Board of Elections reported long lines in urban and some rural counties. More than 137,000 people had voted by 5 p.m. Thursday afternoon, according to the agency. The count is incomplete because some counties had not reported and some voting locations were open into the early evening.
“I think the word of the day is ‘robust’ turnout,” said Gary Sims, Wake County’s elections director. “People are showing up — and a lot of people. I tell you, despite the news about this and that, everybody has been extremely polite and civil. We’re not experiencing anything negative, and I’m really happy with that.”
Early voting has become so entrenched in the state since it started in 2000 that more than half of voters cast ballots before Election Day in November 2012. This year, early voting ends Nov. 5.
Durham interim elections director Kate Cosner said some people showed up at 7 a.m. for a 9 a.m. opening. The early morning wait was longest, at about an hour, she said. Since then, there hasn’t been a wait of longer than 30 minutes.
“Everything’s gone very well for our first day,” Cosner said. “We’ve had a lot of excited people today.”
Eastern counties are conducting the election in the wake of a natural disaster that damaged an estimated 100,000 homes, businesses and government buildings. Some people flooded out of their homes are still in shelters.
One voting site in Lenoir County did not open. The county hopes it has a replacement lined up. A site in Johnston County opened an hour late because of the hazardous materials spill in a truck accident on Interstate 95 Wednesday.
Electioneers at the Hope Mills site were still talking about washed-out roads in neighborhoods nearby.
No one knows how the disruption caused by the hurricane and flood will affect turnout, but weather-related obstacles — for those who faced them — were no match for people determined to vote.
LaDora Gallardo, 27, arrived at the one-stop site with her mother Myra Mellon, 55. Mellon had to leave her mobile home for one night when flood waters lapped the floorboards. Gallardo lost her car in the flood. But she looked forward to the chance to vote.
“I voted for Obama last time,” she said. “It was the best vote I ever made. I’d vote for him again.”
Since he cannot have a third term, she wanted to vote on his successor.
“I’d swim over here,” Gallardo said.
Robert Walker, who arrived at the Cumberland County one-stop site in Hope Mills hours before it opened, recalled the water from two creeks rising under his mobile home in Fayetteville and reaching the grille of his car. He tried to start the car after the water receded, and it caught fire.
Still, Walker arrived to vote hours before the doors opened.
“Oh, yeah,” said Walker, 67. “Every election I come out. Try to get it in and be done with it.”
Walker said he was surprised by the line, which was wrapped around the recreation center.
Marvin and Cassandra Williams of Fayetteville were eager voters who waited for an hour in the line at Hope Mills. They expected to be waiting with a lot of people.
“I think everybody is just ready to vote,” said Marvin, 50. People are “ready for it to be over,” added Cassandra, 47. “Nineteen more days. Can’t get here quick enough.”
Other rural counties reported heavy turnout.
About 900 people had voted by late afternoon in Franklin County, which has about 43,000 registered votes. While the county went from three sites in 2012 to a single site on the first voting day this year, elections director Lisa Goswick said wait times were “probably no more than 10 minutes.”
“It’s the most (voters) we’ve ever had on the first day,” she said.
Despite being hit hard by flooding, Edgecombe County had about 1,400 voters on Thursday — a “pretty standard” number for the start of early voting, elections director Jerry Spruell said.
While the Princeville and Pinetops areas saw heavy flooding from Hurricane Matthew, no polling sites were affected. “We were real blessed,” he said.
A group of voters represented by Hillary Clinton’s campaign attorney had sought unsuccessfully to expand early voting in Nash County, which has a single polling site open in the first week of voting. They argued that the Nashville location was too far for Rocky Mount residents. A federal appeals court panel denied their request.
Distance didn’t deter the roughly 2,000 voters who’d cast ballots by late afternoon. Elections director John Kearney called it a “huge turnout for opening day.”
He said the site had a line at times but “I don’t think anybody waited longer than 15 to 20 minutes.”
Harnett County had more than 1,000 voters Thursday, a number “slightly higher than normal,” elections director Claire Jones said. Peak wait times ranged from 20 to 30 minutes.
Staff writers Craig Jarvis and Colin Campbell contributed.