Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Across Tompkins County, polling places were quieter than usual — including at Town Hall on North Tioga Street.

November 4, 2020

Early Voting Leads to Quiet Election Day, Volunteers Say

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“It started off with a lot of excitement at five in the morning.” 

Natalie Breitkopf ’22 was speaking of volunteering as a poll worker, and she wasn’t speaking facetiously. She said she’d been waiting years for Tuesday — Election Day — to come, where she worked a 16-hour shift as the youngest person at the Alice Cook House polling station.

She was one of the thousands of poll workers across the east coast who opened up polling stations on a rainy Election Day, unsure of what the day would look like.

Strong early voting numbers — over 13,000 in Tompkins County — led to shorter lines and calmer days than other election years. In the afternoon, the Ithaca Town Hall site was all but empty; workers chatted or read books as voters trickled in to vote using socially distant booths. 

David Bravo-Cullen ’85, who was working the Belle Sherman Annex polling site, said he could tell even in the morning that this was the lowest turnout he’d seen in eight years of working the polls. He chalked it up to the increase in early voting this year. 

Many of the people he did see at the polling site southeast of Collegetown were student voters such as Shriya Desai ’24 and her hallmate Isabella Ritchie ’24, who hiked a mile and a half from Dickson Hall on North Campus to bubble in their first presidential tickets. 

“We didn’t mind the walk. Being in online classes, it’s nice to have some exercise,” Desai said after voting.

Both students registered in Ithaca to vote instead of their homes in Connecticut and London. While they weren’t as familiar with the local candidates, the first-years were excited to vote and nervous about bubbling in the ballot correctly. 

“It was like taking the SAT all over again!” Ritchie said. 

Alice Cook House’s lounge, which once held comfy chairs and a pool table, was turned into a voting station for the day with long tables and plenty of hand sanitizer. Breitkopf had taped up the signs outside the door — those prohibiting electioneering and announcing COVID-19 protocol and voting information — herself. 

Outside, the socially-distant sidewalk markers stood mostly empty. Turnout was low there as well, and Breitkopf estimated that by midafternoon only around 80 of the approximately 800 registered voters in the district had voted in person, largely due to high early and absentee balloting. 

Breitkopf, a Scarsdale native, had voted early herself. 

“This is the most important election, possibly, of my life,” she said, standing in the 31-degree weather outside Alice Cook House. “I wanted to be able to tell my kids and my grandkids that I was a poll worker.” 

She had to go through several rounds of applications to make the cut, filling in spots left empty after only about half the typical number of older poll workers signed up this year. Today, Breitkopf was the youngest person in her station, with only one other graduate student in the room. Everyone else was over 60. 

Despite their differences in age, she described the “magic” atmosphere in the Alice Cook pool-room-turned-poll-room as she neared the ninth hour of her shift, and said she’d connected with many of her fellow workers. 

“We’re not allowed to talk about politics in the polling place,” she said. “For once, in this space, we have to be apolitical. We have to be nonpartisan.” 

That sentiment was echoed by Bravo-Cullen, the Belle Sherman poll worker, as well. Bravo-Cullen, a Republican and a member of the Dryden Board of Trustees, only catches up with other regular volunteers — hailing from across the political spectrum — on Election Days. 

“It’s nice to see people again,” he said.

Amanda H. Cronin ’21 contributed reporting to this story.