Tossing a coin in Copley Square: A day of early voting

Early voters surround the Boston Public Library in Copley Square on Oct. 24, 2020. Photo by Caitlin Faulds/BU News Service

By Caitlin Faulds
BU News Service

Jerry Holliday has taken his usual spot on the long bench at the base of the Boston Public Library’s stone façade. His coffee sits idly beside the pocket of his cargo shorts while he raises a hand-rolled cigarette to his lips. A line is beginning to form around him — and he’s not in it.

He’s not ready, the Brighton resident says. He was mulling over the decision this morning, on his daily walk. But he hasn’t yet made up his mind because “both are corrupt as hell,” he says. President Donald Trump is hard to figure out, but tells it like it is. And he’s still “pissed” at the Democratic National Convention, he says, for pushing candidates Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar out of the race.

So no, he doesn’t know, he says. He’s not ready. But since he’s here, since the line for early voting has already subsumed him as he smokes, maybe he’ll drop in and decide at the moment. Maybe he’ll toss a coin.

“It doesn’t get more democratic than tossing a coin,” Jerry says.

But of the hundreds who crowded into Copley Square on Saturday, many were more certain of the decision to be made. When the heavy black doors of the library — shuttered for months due to COVID-19 — swung open at 11 a.m., a line of Boston residents who stood six feet apart would be wrapped halfway around the imposing granite and glass building. It doesn’t get more democratic than this, several would say, than standing in line with neighbors for an hour or more to have your voice heard and your vote count.

Firmly in the line just 30 feet from Jerry, under a contingent of American flags and near a fluttering “Vote Here” sign, Anne Doyle’s eyes shine determined and anxious above a black mask. She’s 62 and she’s never voted early before, she says. But here she is — an hour before the polls open, with her reading glasses and the Globe’s Metro section in hand to pass the time.

“We have a major issue in the presidency,” she says. “And COVID needs some real attention.” She’s spent the last eight months worried about her 95-year-old mother and what the future looks like for her kids.

“I’m hoping it will give me a little peace,” she says of casting a ballot for Democratic candidate Joe Biden this morning.

Inside the library, in a marble-lined, arch-laden vestibule Andrea Olmstead, 72, stands guard. She knows her way around a voting station. After all, she’s been working them for 16 years.

On Election Day, she’ll be the warden for Precinct Four just a mile or so down the road. But this morning, she’s one of several poll inspectors helping to make sure everything goes to plan.

With the clock counting down until opening, she and the other poll workers are making some last-minute changes to direct traffic through the lobby. The in-and-out bound zones shouldn’t cross, they think, cause of COVID-19. One worker stretches a tape measure six feet across the marble floors, tapes a small blue line and repeats. Two men roll out a large grey room divider and unfurl it across the vestibule — this will do.

“It’s going to go organically,” she says. People will enter through the furthest door, exit through the middle. And in between, they’ll flow smoothly through the Guastavino Room — named for the Spanish builder who placed tile after beige ceramic tile into the ceilings — which has been transformed into a makeshift voting station.

The Guastavino Room at the front of the library is large, drafty and gloriously Mediterranean — perfect for COVID-19 negating airflow and a suitably impressive place to cast a ballot. Warm October light streams from large windows and falls on marble and brass floors. Pink bricks accent the lower half of the white walls. Square-based columns divide the vaulted room down the middle. Curled ironwork clinging halfway up the inner walls supports a wooden walkway that puts shelves of colored-coded books within reach.

Tables display signs for check-in and check-out. Others are filled with blue tubs of unwritten ballots. Six plastic-paneled ballot boxes stand silent, each with two catty-corner wobbly plastic tables barely big enough to turn the ballot. 

It’s fifteen minutes before 11 a.m. and Christopher Atwood, the warden in charge this morning, is pacing from check-in to check-out on one side of the room. “The big deal is: city of Boston, registered voter,” he tells a small huddle of poll workers. That’s key to ask as people sidle in, he says, so they don’t wait an hour to find out they can’t vote here.

With just a few minutes left, workers are taking their places. A man is spraying down the halls with an aerosol sanitizer. The line inspectors are heading outside. Security swings the doors open and Andrea ushers the first woman through. A greeter splashes her hands with hand sanitizer and waves her to check-in. The polls are open.

At 11:20 a.m., Kelsey Brendel casts her ballot, pushes a stroller out the doors and pauses at the base of the stairs.

“It’s always a powerful experience,” she says, but today her vote for Biden is “deeply felt.”

She couldn’t afford to wait for hours and hours in a line on Election Day, so she and her son Harry, 7, were here early to make sure her vote counted. It’s her son’s first time voting by proxy, she says, his first time experiencing the polls. Now, sitting in the stroller with a red turtleneck watching the buses and birds pass by Copley Square, Harry has an “I voted” sticker placed front and center. 

“This time has been so lonely,” Kelsey says, her voice catching and her eyes tearing up. She looks down at her son. He has special needs, she says, and she’s cast her vote with those needs in mind. Her choices will echo throughout his life and impact the opportunities he has — she knows this.

“Showing up matters,” she says. Not only to her son, but to everyone in the country, anyone in a vulnerable position. This struck her as she pushed Harry down the ramp, and now she’s turned back to appreciate the sight of these long lines, she says. “It’s always encouraging to see people use their voice.”

With each voter, a rhythm emerges in the Guastavino Room. Hand sanitizer, check-in, ballot handout, voting booth, ballot drop, hand sanitizer. And another. Hand sanitizer, check-in, ballot handout, voting booth, ballot drop, hand sanitizer. And another. Again and again. Hundreds and hundreds of voters roll through, each announcing their exit with the solemn thud of a heavy ballot hitting the base of a locked black box. The hours pass in a trance. Slowly, slowly the line shrinks as the day draws on.

By 6 p.m., the “Vote Here” flag in front of the library is luffing in a strong evening wind. A few voters still dive inside — a man with an American flag bandana, a woman with her orange ballot in hand. But it’s a sporadic drifting now. The solid line fortifying the building’s outer perimeter has all but disappeared.

The front steps have been reclaimed by the usual Copley crowds. A toddler is making a break from their stroller, bobbling several yards toward traffic before their father swoops them up again. Young skaters gather below a statue of a woman with a globe, grinding their boards along the granite edge of the steps. Two girls sit near the entrance, music pouring from a phone. “Here comes the sun, and I say it’s all right,” they chime in for the chorus.

A couple races around the corner of the building, pushing to make it on time. The security guard waves them through, no problem—minutes to spare. They walk out at 7 p.m., linger for a moment under the warm light streaming out from the Guastavino Room before strolling out across the square.

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