CLEVELAND—The last day of early voting in Cuyahoga County ended with Qiang Shen, 48, of Strongsville, Ohio, a Chinese-food deliveryman and naturalized citizen who was casting his first-ever ballot for Barack Obama.
“It’s a joy,” Shen said. “One vote may have no effect, but this experience is so exciting.”
After a series of courtroom battles this summer and fall put Ohio’s balloting rules under a national microscope, the finale of early voting played out Monday under an ashen sky. Despite the weather, the mood was festive; loudspeakers blared music from the steps of a nearby church, and a man in an Obama mask roamed the line, having his picture taken with voters. A hot dog cart was across the street.
Shen and his wife, Denise Luu, another first-time voter for Obama, had shown up in the parking area near the county’s election board as the seconds ticked by to the 2 p.m. close. “The guy told me, ‘you need to run,’” he said.
So they ran. Then, they waited. Some Cuyahoga County early voters reported lines of up to two hours Monday. Joe Mercado, 41, of Parma, Ohio, took his 9-year old daughter, Gabriella, who was home sick from school, with him to the elections board. As the wait dragged on, he was forced to reschedule her doctor’s appointment.
“There has got to be some easier way,” he said. Mercado, a community college instructor and IT consultant, said voting by e-mail or text could be done securely, and the state should find a more modern way to cast ballots.
Mercado—politically engaged enough that his daughter has a favorite MSNBC host, Melissa Harris-Perry—said he voted for Obama despite initial misgivings.
“I felt he didn’t speak up loudly enough against Republicans,” he said, “but it seems like he’s regained his mettle.”
Mercado and several other votes said that while the lines were a hassle, they were a hopeful sign that county residents were excited about the election. In addition to the early voting line that snaked around the block, a smaller stream of people dropped off their mail-in absentee ballots in a box that had been wheeled onto Euclid Avenue.
“It’s a more fulfilling sight than seeing three people in line,” said Matthew Smedley, 24, a mechanical engineer from Cleveland as left the site after waiting 45 minutes to vote for Obama.
Ellis Stearns, 39, a landscaper from Cleveland, had procured an Obama mask from a friend and, playing the president, had spent three hours thanking supporters and posing for photos with voters as they waited in the line.
However, in an interview, he acknowledged that he had been forced to break character when he voted earlier in the day.
“They didn’t let me go in there with this on,” he said.
A strong turnout in heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County is critical to Obama’s survival Tuesday, and the sense that the eyes of the nation were fixed on Ohio was inescapable on Monday. Several voter-protection lawyers hovered around the site, in case problems arose. A sound truck covered with labor union signs circled the block repeatedly, blaring music. Men whose roles were unclear loitered nearby, muttering into their cellphones.
On Monday afternoon, as a flight into Cleveland disgorged another load of out-of-state lawyers and reporters—including a detachment of pro bono election monitors from a Boston law firm—a train rolled by on the tracks next to the airport.
It was Ringling Brothers. The circus was leaving town.