Convenience and ambiance draw thousands of early voters to a small-town firehouse

By Jane Gottlieb,

Richard Beaven for The Washington Post

Betty Filkins and Stephen Scavino work the small early-voting site in Berne, N.Y.

BERNE, N.Y. — Betty Filkins has been an election inspector in this small town in the hills of eastern New York for five years. Last year, she counted 42 voters in all 10 days of early voting.

“We’d bring projects. I’m president of the cemetery board; I usually worked on that,” said Filkins, 73, who switched from Democrat to Republican a while back to meet legal requirements that the site have inspectors from both parties.

This year, in the first six days of early voting, 2,900 people cast ballots at the Berne Volunteer Fire Company. A good number traveled miles west from Albany and its suburbs, navigating the Helderberg Mountains and deeply wooded, corkscrewing roads to get here.

“Wow, that’s really odd,” Stephen Savino, 63, thought as he arrived on day one to work the polls with Filkins, his sister-in-law. More than 20 people were already waiting.

Much has been written about the blocks-long lines and hours-long waits in major metropolitan areas across the country. But here in Albany County, some voters are devoting the better part of a morning or afternoon to reach Berne, population 2,800.

There are clear reasons for its sudden popularity. For the first time, the county is allowing voters to use any of six early voting centers. Those who head for the hills are opting to drive farther in hope of risking less exposure to the coronavirus.

“We get them through quickly,” Savino said Friday.

“We figured out we get one person every 30 seconds,” Filkins added.

Richard Beaven

for The Washington Post

A steady stream of early voters have come this week to the polling site at the Berne Volunteer Fire Company in Albany County, N.Y.

Ben and Becky Marvin avoided the crowds at home in Bethlehem for a 35-minute ride amid fading autumn foliage. In the Berne firehouse, a red-brick, four-bay building, they quickly cast their ballots, got “I Voted” stickers, hand sanitizer and a chance to pet a good-natured Golden Retriever named Missy, who belongs to one of the poll inspectors.

“I even took some selfies of me and Becky outside to send to our daughters,” Ben Marvin said.

Word of Berne’s ambiance spread via the community website Nextdoor. The county Board of Elections, intrigued by the glowing reports about the fast and friendly service, brought dinner one night for those on duty.

Fire company business has continued alongside the voting. On Monday, there was the funeral for a beloved Berne firefighter who had died in a freak accident at the highway department next door. Trucks and ambulances from 17 area companies paused at the firehouse as sirens rang six times. Then the processional moved on.

The people ready to vote “needed to wait,” said Filkins, still a little weepy. “But no one cared. They were very nice.”

She and Savino have heard no political bickering at their site. One voter, however, did call the elections board to complain that Filkins wasn’t wearing a mask.

“She dropped it for a second to take a sip of coffee,” Savino recounted. “I drink Gatorade, sugar-free, Betty drinks coffee. We try to do it as we’re working. We hardly get a break.”

Richard Beaven

for The Washington Post

The Berne Volunteer Fire Company in rural New York drew 2,900 early voters in less than a week, a huge number compared to past years.

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