Thousands of residents flocked to the polls in the Baton Rouge region on Friday for the first day of early in-person voting, sticking it out in winding lines with hours-long wait-times to cast a ballot for what many voters said is the most consequential election of their lifetimes.
Shortly after Dell Webb, 62, arrived at Forest Community Park, she received a text from her daughter-in-law with a smiling photo of her four-month-old grandson. She knew in an instant that the two-hour wait time and intermittent rain showers weren’t going to stop her from voting.
“It makes it worthwhile to stand in this line so that his safety and freedom in the future is there,” Webb said. “I’m not happy with what’s going on right now with the country.”
Roughly 7,400 ballots were cast in East Baton Rouge Parish on Friday, an uptick from the 5,500 cast on the first day of early voting in 2016, but fewer than the 9,500 votes cast at the start of early voting in last year's gubernatorial runoff, said Steve Raborn, the parish's registrar of elections.
Several older voters said they initially planned to vote through absentee ballots, but said national political debates about mail-in voting and voter fraud spurred them to vote in-person.
Mattie Woodard, 68, was one such voter. She brought a folding chair to make the wait easier.
“Listening to Trump and all of his allegations about voter fraud, I wanted to make sure my vote counted,” Woodard said.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic — which has killed more than 5,500 people statewide as of Friday — upended normal early voting operations. Election workers were decked out in personal protective equipment, and voting machines and pens were sanitized between voters.
Masks were encouraged, but not required, though most voters who turned out Friday wore a face covering of some kind. Kelly Strome, 38, who voted at the State Archives Building with her four-year-old daughter, was complimentary of how election officials adapted to the pandemic.
“I didn’t feel at-risk at all coming to vote,” Strome said. “I felt like everyone was respecting everyone’s distance.”
Early voting will run until Oct. 27, excluding Sundays. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and voters who are at the polls at closing time will be allowed to vote, Raborn said.
Zona Pickens, 78, who described herself as a “kitty lady,” wore a cloth mask emblazoned with a collage of kittens and flowers. She said she’s voted in every election since 1960, but said the 2020 election was the most important of her lifetime.
"I hope everybody gets out to vote regardless of their convictions," Pickens said.
Jerry Freedman, 64, said he's voting because he wants to see a change in the federal government, adding that casting a ballot is "the best and most painless way to make a change."
Oliver Jack, 76, said that as a Black man, the outcome of the election was particularly important to his personal well-being. His sentiments were echoed by several other Black voters, some of whom said they hope their voices are heard amidst a changing climate over issues of racial justice and equity.
"I think we have an opportunity here to make ourselves known and to make folks respect us the way we should be respected as Black people," Jack said.
In Ascension Parish, voters at the Courthouse Annex in Gonzales waited around 30 minutes in a line that snaked across the parking lot. For some, early voting is a regular practice. Others said they knew they would have work conflicts on Election Day.
As they stood in line together late Friday morning, Gretchen, 76, and Jerry Roddy, 80, of Gonzales, who have been married 55 years, said they began early voting the last few elections because of the ease.
Gretchen Roddy said she wouldn’t have considered mail-in voting this time, though, and remains distrustful of it after seeing news reports of postal workers allegedly disposing of ballots in the trash in other states.
She said she also objected to some other states’ practices of mailing out masses of unsolicited ballots to voters. She said those practices are different from absentee balloting, as happens in Louisiana, in which voters request mail-in ballots.
“Why can’t you see the difference between the two?” Roddy said, referencing the national debate over mail-in voting.
Early voting starts Friday and election officials in Baton Rouge anticipate long lines and heavy turnout as voters flock to the polls to cast …