While early voting lines stretch around blocks in New York City this week, across the river in New Jersey, some residents can only wish they had the option of voting early in person too. Instead, New Jerseyans can either vote by mail or appear in person on Election Day.
The absence of early voting has left many Haitian-Americans wondering about congestion at the polls, the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, and how senior citizens will manage long waits.
“I’m really concerned for the elderly and people with disabilities who won’t be able to stand in line for too long because of different pains they may have,” said Arianni Pierre, a graduate student at Rutgers University. “I have two elderly parents and I can’t see them standing in line for 30 minutes, let alone [for] four hours.”
About 40,850 Haitian-Americans live in New Jersey, according to the U.S. Census, with most living in or near East Orange, Irvington and Paterson.
Since in-person early voting is not available, many community members pushed for voting by mail instead, where the voters mail their completed ballots back to officials. Haitian radio stations, social media forums and church leaders heavily encouraged Haitian-Americans to vote by mail. Local community members created videos in English and Creole to explain how vote-by-mail works.
Pierre, an East Orange resident, said she was hoping to vote by mail, but has yet to receive her ballot. On Election Day, Pierre will instead go to the poll site with her brothers, who will stand in line with her on behalf of their parents. When their turn arrives, the brothers will call their parents to come vote with them.
Woody Philippe, executive director of Jefferson Park Ministries, a social services organization in Elizabeth, said he and his family have voted by mail already. However, knowing there is a need, he plans to drive voters who need rides to the polls on Election Day.
Because the state successfully urged people to vote by mail in the primary and fewer people are out due to COVID-19, congestion at the polls may not be an issue, Philippe said. Having police and poll workers available to make sure people follow social distancing should also help.
People who need help with voting can also get in-person and over-the-phone assistance on Election Day, Philippe said.
Haitian-Americans in Monmouth County have been receiving information on voting issues through 88.1 FM, Good News Radio. Ebenezer Church of God of Prophecy in Neptune City will be providing transportation to voting sites on Nov. 3.
Still, others worry that there will be those flouting the rules and congestion will be an issue.
“Some people are comfortable with masks and other people are not comfortable with masks,” said Rodney Jean, a fashion designer in East Windsor. “It’s very divided and nobody wants to listen to anyone.”
Jean plans to take the day off from work to vote in person. He said having the option to vote early in person would be better than New Jersey’s current system.
For Pierre, of East Orange, the concern is how the state will safeguard people from COVID-19 and how those measures might affect wait time. She wonders whether they will turn off and sanitize the booths after each person votes. Her East Orange polling location, the lobby of a small church, only has two voting machines, so a 30-second task can turn into two minutes.
Kareen Delice-Kircher, CEO of a technology consulting firm, plans to drop off her ballot at the County Clerk’s office. She is among those who prefer not to mail back their ballots.
“If Haitian people had the option to vote early, this would give us more confidence in the process because you’d know you [voted] in-person,” said Delice-Kircher, a Howell resident. “You know for sure with your own two eyes that you did it.”
While the extra planning does not seem to have dampened enthusiasm, the overwhelming sense is that the state really should have made early in-person voting an option.
“With COVID-19, you have a lot of graduate students and professionals who are home,” Phillippe said. “They’re going to resonate better with early voting. They’re going to act early because they’re feeling the pain of what’s going on, and they want a change.”