New Yorkers have been braving inclement weather this week to cast their votes early before the general election on November 3, and the rain didn’t dampen voters’ spirits as they queued to vote in the diverse neighbourhood of Jackson Heights in Queens.

“I’m a little bit excited. It’s making me feel American,” said Rubina Yasmin, a housewife who cast her first-ever vote in an American election on Thursday, October 29. Her friend, who is not an American citizen, waited with her in line. When she left the voting site, the Queens Public Library at Jackson Heights, Yasmin told that she was happy and relieved.

Like Yasmin, most voters expressed excitement and relief as they cast their vote.

“Voters have been enthusiastic, and we have too!” said Raquel Alonso Martinez, the coordinator at the voting site. “It’s been busy, it’s been good. Many people have complimented us on how quick and easy the process has been once they’re inside. This is the way every election should be,” she said.

Early voting, which began on October 24 and will end on November 1, is one of the three ways in which American citizens can cast their ballot — the other options are voting by mail and voting in person on election day.

Record early turnout

Due to the coronavirus, many voters are opting to vote by mail or vote early in person: nearly 315,000 New Yorkers cast their ballots in the first three days alone, despite long lines and interminable wait times. Across the country, the early voting turnout had already reached half of the 2016 total with six days still to go to election day on November 3.

“This was my first time voting,” said Manpreet Kaur, a pharmacist in Queens, who added that she felt more empowered after using her right to vote amid general anxieties over the state of American politics. “Last election, I didn’t vote thinking that there’s no way Trump was going to win, and he did,” “This time, I think it’s really important to vote and make sure he doesn’t.”

The neighbourhood of Jackson Heights is known for being a predominantly immigrant community, with a large South Asian and Hispanic population.

Friendly volunteers ushered groups of ten at a time into the library, where interpreters in five languages — Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Chinese, and Korean — were available for those who needed translation assistance. As they left the library, volunteers thanked them for their vote. Outside the library, a food truck from the NGO World Central Kitchen offered water and a meal of free tacos, and a local restaurant set up a stall at lunchtime to hand vegan empanadas to voters standing in line.

Mahphara Elahi, a student at Queens College and a first-time voter, agreed. “Voting was very easy. [The poll workers] were very nice, and everyone was very clear on what to do. It was a great experience,” she said.

Wait times

Martinez said the average wait time at the public library in Jackson Heights was between 1-3 hours. On Thursday, the sixth day of early voting, the line moved quickly — in part to get people out of the rain and into the voting booth. However, this made it more difficult to socially distance inside the library.

Native New Yorker Shoumik Khan said he chose early voting to avoid crowds, especially since he has a large family with several elderly members. “It does look a little crowded today, but the line seems to be moving fast,” he said. He had a New York City Fast Pass Tag, which has a barcode to provide a quicker, contactless way for poll workers to look up registered voters.

“I believe everyone should vote, and vote as often as possible. It is our minimum duty as American citizens and it’s very important to how we live our lives,” added Khan.

Besides Covid-19, voter suppression is a major concern this election as President Trump and the Republican party have discouraged voting by mail.

Biddut Deb, an immigrant who has been in New York City for nine years, said he was excited to vote early but had waited a few days to avoid crowds and long lines because of Covid.

Pious Ahmed and her husband Farhauddin Ahmed also cited the pandemic as the reason behind their early voting. “This is the second election we’re voting in. I’m glad the line is moving fast, we left our kids at home!” she said.

‘Get out the vote’

Though much of the discourse this year has focused on Trump and the Republican party’s efforts to suppress votes, by declaring them fraudulent, many of the organisations that seek to make the democratic process easier for citizens have also been out playing their part.

Chhaya CDC, a community-based organization based in Jackson Heights and Richmond Hills in Queens that addresses the housing and economic needs of the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean population in the area, is one of them.

“We do voter engagement work, which involves forums with candidates or translating information, and GOTV work, like phonebanking and textbanking,” said Jagpreet Singh, Lead Organizer at Chhaya CDC. GOTV is short for “get out the vote.”

“We’ve been doing GOTV for the past two weeks now, and have contacted at least 9000 members of the South Asian community to remind them to vote,” he said. “We’ve also been asking them how they’re going to vote, and the vast majority — around 2/3rds — hare voting by absentee ballot or early voting. This is a big shift from what we’ve seen in previous years,” said Singh, adding that it gives people the time and flexibility to vote at their own convenience.

He said that overall engagement within the community has been much higher this year, which the mood at the Queens Public Library at Jackson Heights reflected.

Prakash Patel, an immigrant and a Jackson Heights resident who works for the United States Postal Service, came to drop his ballot off at the library. “I’m voting early because I didn’t want to wait until the last minute and have to rush,” he said. “And the other reason of course is Covid-19.”

Patel’s employer, the postal service, has been under extra scrutiny this year because of Trump’s efforts at delegitimising mail-in ballots – which the president has insisted, without evidence, are used for voter fraud. Patel declined to comment on those concerns, however.

“I’m very excited to vote. Every election I like to go vote and show my power as a citizen,” he said. “I’ve voted in every kind of election since I came to this country.”

Photos: Vandana Menon