NEWARK, NJ — On an Election Day like no other in United States history, Newarkers turned out to polling locations across the city.
Newark, which has a historically low voter turnout rate, yielded only 54% voter participation in the 2016 election compared to New Jersey’s 68%. This year, Newark has 35 polling locations for its 163 districts due to the mostly vote-by-mail election.
At the Prudential Center “super" polling location, which combined eight Central Ward districts for convenience, voters and poll workers reported smooth sailing all day. The site, normally a sports and entertainment arena with a capacity of 20,000, opened its doors at 6 a.m.
A Prudential official said he wasn’t sure how many voters had come through on Tuesday, but noted that it was more than he expected.
There were no lines and people filed into the arena in small numbers, according to local residents handing out goodie bags to people who voted. Friends Roslyn Skyles, Donnette Brown, Stephanie Jones and Jones’ mother Michelle Bowles said they wanted to reward those who honored their civic duty.
“The way the world is, we just want to show everyone, regardless of what side you’re voting for, that we’re happy you came out to vote,” Brown said. “People don’t take voting as seriously as they should.”
Other volunteers handed out free pizza, candy, cupcakes and other favors to voters as they left the Prudential polling site. DeeDee Moore, 37, said she wanted to cast her vote in person out of anxiety that her vote might not be counted.
“I wanted to see exactly where it was going, right then and there,” she said. “I’m walking away with a sense of accomplishment and empowerment.”
Inside, voters saddled up to tables with dividers where they could vote via provisional ballot. Machines for disabled voters lined one wall and a secure drop box awaited absentee ballots.
At 2 p.m., Secretary of State Tanieshia Way made her first stop of a statewide tour at Prudential to observe its Election Day operations.
New Jersey’s vote-by-mail numbers sit at more than 3.7 million, Way said, thanking the poll workers and officials in Newark facilitating elections. Acknowledging long lines and wait times stemming from COVID-19 safety measures at some locations across the state, Way encouraged voters to exercise patience along with their vote.
“We really are in unprecedented times, so one thing that we have been advising our voters is to be patient and understand we want every properly cast ballot to be counted,” she said.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy ordered in May that the 2020 election would be mostly mail-in due to concerns over COVID-19 spread. The order stipulated that anyone who votes in person on Election Day must do so on paper.
Voters can track their ballot by going to New Jersey’s Public Access System. As for how soon New Jersey’s results will be finalized, Way again advised patience as the votes are counted.
After supporters of President Donald Trump shut down traffic on the Garden State Parkway on Sunday, some have raised concerns about voter intimidation and suppression. Way said state police, the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security are monitoring polling locations.
“Everyone is working in a team effort to make sure that democracy moves forward,” Way said.
While Way offered no incidents of physical attempts to block voters on Tuesday, she warned that false information on social media intended to mislead voters can be just as dangerous. Voters should contact their local board of elections, county clerk or Way’s office to have their questions answered.
“When you receive any incorrect information that too is a form of voter suppression and intimidation, so be on the watch for that,” she said.
In the South Ward, voters reported being stuck in long lines and said that the Greater Abyssinian Baptist Church opened 35 minutes late in the morning.
According to South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James, Greater Abyssinian was delayed because the ballots, which had to be provided to by the Essex County Board of Elections, were not delivered on time.
“I think under the circumstances, which are not normal because of COVID-19, everyone did their best to ensure that residents had their right to vote,” he said. “We also must keep in mind that the option of mailing in your vote was provided months ago.”
He added that the long lines were not unique to one location, and they were a product of circumstance. Normally, the South Ward has 40 polling stations, but due to the statewide order, there were only six locations this year.
“I’m 52 years old, I’ve never been through this before. For the first time, instead of 40 different polling sites, people have to go somewhere they’ve never voted before,” James said.
South Ward resident Charlie Lloyd said there were documents missing at his polling site.
“They did not have the sheet that explains the questions, which is completely unacceptable,” he said.
But others provided that their voting experience was a positive one. Resident Janet Holman said volunteers were handing out snack bags at the Malcolm X Shabazz High School site and that everyone was “friendly.”
“I got to see my old high school. It was beautiful, Republicans and Democrats both working together in peace,” Holman said.
A group of volunteers from the BRICK Education Network spent the day spreading some positivity of their own by caravaning around the South Ward. Staff were provided the day off to encourage residents to vote and provide rides to the polls.
The group also phone banked over the weekend, making more than 500 calls to remind the South Ward to vote.
"This election is like no other. The goal of our campaign was to encourage our families and mobilize the South Ward to vote but we also had to be hands-on in the community to educate them about the voting process during this pandemic,” said Tish Jones, Managing Director of External Relations for BRICK Education Network. “At the same time, we wanted to bring excitement back to election day during such a tumultuous time. "