Thousands of people waited in long lines to cast ballots across the state on the first day of early voting Monday, with some counties reporting turnouts that shattered single-day records during the presidential elections in 2012 and 2016.
Pulaski County reported a turnout of 8,088 voters just before polls closed at 6 p.m. That number likely increased from last-minute votes cast after polls shuttered. Voters are allowed to cast ballots if they are waiting in line when polling places close.
On the first day of early voting in 2016, Pulaski County recorded 6,541 ballots. Monday's turnout surpassed the county's single-day early-voting record of 7,855 on Nov. 2, 2012, the last day of early voting before Election Day that year.
Absentee ballot requests are also setting records, with election officials across the state attributing the uptick in mail-in ballots directly to the ongoing pandemic and concerns over safety at the polls.
Pulaski County fulfilled almost 25,000 requests for absentee ballots, more than triple the number requested for the 2016 presidential election. Nearly 13,000 of the absentee ballots requested for this election have been returned, said Bryan Poe, Pulaski County director of elections.
"All things considered, with it being a presidential election and with the covid-19 pandemic, I think it has all gone relatively smoothly," Poe said. "Hopefully as time goes on, we will identify where we need to deploy additional resources and speed up the process in a number of locations."
Pulaski County, the state's largest, has more than 250,000 registered voters.
Throughout the day at voting stations around Little Rock, long lines stretched up to two city blocks, the length exacerbated by social distancing. Some voters said they drove to a couple of voting locations only to leave because of lengthy queues.
Some arrived with chairs in preparation for possible waits. Volunteers distributed water at one location.
"So far, I have been here only 30 minutes," said Kathryn Evans, who waited to vote outside McMath Library in Little Rock. "This is one of the shortest lines. I went downtown, and that line was very long."
Jackie Williams, who also stood in a line of about 80 people at McMath Library, said a line outside Thompson Library, another voting center in Little Rock, was at least 200 deep even before polls opened.
"It was so long, I didn't even get out of my car," Williams said.
Hannah Burdette, voter protection organizer for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, which runs a voter protection hotline at (501) 299-5589, said there were reports of waits of up to four hours in Pulaski County.
"The biggest thing we have noticed so far are very busy precincts, lots of long lines," Burdette said. "There have been long lines almost everywhere."
Craighead County reported 1,723 ballots near the end of the day, a substantial increase from an average of about 500 to 700 votes per day during early-voting periods in previous elections, said Jennifer Clack, Craighead County election coordinator.
"We had a ton of people who wanted to get this done the first day," Clack said. "We definitely are running far above our average early-vote numbers. People are not used to much of a wait at all. This is a little bit of an extenuating circumstance."
Nearly 3,000 absentee ballots were requested in Craighead County, up from about 800 in the run-up to other major elections, Clack said. "I think a lot of people want to stay protected and stay quarantined," she said.
Sebastian County reported 4,399 ballots as of about 5 p.m., nearly double the 2,641 votes on the first day of early voting in 2016, County Clerk Sharon Brooks said.
"Our early voting numbers are way up there," Brooks said.
Sebastian County received 3,950 requests for absentee ballots, more than triple the number requested in 2016, Brooks said.
"Everything has been running smoothly," she said. "Considering covid and social distancing, everything has been going really well."
With more than 3,200 ballots cast, Saline County also reported a substantial increase compared with the first day of voting in 2016, said Allison Cain, Saline County election coordinator.
"We are definitely busier than the last presidential election," Cain said. "We had people lining up in Benton at 6:40 this morning."
Cain said Saline County has sent out 4,300 absentee ballots, vastly higher than the roughly 850 requested in the previous presidential race.
In Washington County in Northwest Arkansas, 6,165 early votes, comprising 4.4% of registered voters, were cast Monday, according to data provided by Jennifer Price with the county Election Commission. The county has 140,085 registered voters.
The number of first-day early voters in the county in 2016 was 4,137, or 3.2% of registered voters.
Also in Washington County, about 11,000 absentee ballot applications have been processed and mailed, and 5,400 ballots were returned as of Friday morning, said Deputy Clerk Jamie Williams.
Benton County processed 14,372 absentee ballot applications and received 7,959 ballots back as of Friday morning, said Dana Caler, the Benton County clerk's office elections administrator/voter supervisor. The county has 169,257 registered voters. The voter registration deadline was Oct. 5.
"I've never been more eager to vote in my life," said Jeff Ratcliff, who opted to vote in person in Bentonville, located in Benton County.
Ratcliff and his wife, Denise, were among 9,388 people, or 5.5% of registered voters, who cast ballots in Benton County on the first day of early voting for the Nov. 3 elections.
The number far surpassed the county's 2016 first-day early-vote total for the 2016 presidential election. The county had 5,539 early votes, comprising 3.8% of registered voters, cast ballots on the first day that year, according to information provided by Caler.
Some who opted for in-person voting said they were concerned that voting by mail might mean their ballots would not be counted.
"I just feel like it is necessary that I be here," said Dorothy Davis, who waited to vote outside the Pulaski County Regional Building in downtown Little Rock.
Early voting ends Nov. 2.
Information for this article was contributed by Mike Jones, Tracy M. Neal and Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.