Election officials in storm-ravaged New York and New Jersey are moving dozens of polling sites, seeking power for hundreds of sites lacking electricity and coming up with new voting methods for the Nov. 6 vote.
In New Jersey coastal areas hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, officials inspected damage in washed-out communities to determine the need for new polling sites. Governor Chris Christie’s administration also announced that displaced voters will be able to cast ballots by e-mail and fax.
The Northeast is recovering from the largest Atlantic storm, which killed at least 105 people in the U.S. and initially cut off electricity to 8 million customers. The U.S. Energy Department said as of 2 p.m. yesterday that 3.5 million customers were still without power, including 2.7 million in New York and New Jersey. Some New Jersey election supervisors only returned to barrier islands yesterday after Christie lifted an emergency declaration barring them from the hardest-hit areas.
Election planning in New York City “is still very much a work in progress” because “substantial areas in Queens and Staten Island have poll sites that are inaccessible,” said Doug Kellner, co-chairman of the state election board. About two dozen polling sites on Long Island’s south shore and on Staten Island pose “a very difficult situation,” he said in a telephone interview.
“There is going to be an election, and it won’t be perfect but we will do the best we can,” Kellner said.
Probable election disruptions are concentrated in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Polls project that President Barack Obama will easily carry the three states in his re-election bid against Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
U.S. election officials haven’t had to cope with storm damage as extensive as from Sandy so it’s difficult to project how the disruption will affect voter turnout, said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who studies voter habits.
“Just as a snowstorm or a bad thunderstorm on Election Day can depress turnout, it stands to reason there can be lower turnout as a consequence of Sandy,” he said in a telephone interview. Storm victims “have much better things to do than vote at this point,” he said. “They are going to be taking care of their situation and their homes.”
New Jersey’s governor said specially outfitted trailers will be sent to areas without electricity so that voters can cast paper ballots.
“You’ll go to the same place you always go to if the power is on, and if it’s not, you’ll go in and vote old-school with a paper ballot,” Christie told reporters in Brick. “It will take a little longer to count votes this year but it’ll probably be a late night anyway.”
New Jersey voters displaced by the hurricane and emergency workers will be permitted to ask for ballots by e-mail or fax and to submit them the same way, the New Jersey Department of State told election officials today. That approach will match what overseas and military voters do already.
Those voters can alternatively choose to vote by provisional ballots in polling places outside of where they’re registered, according to new state directives.
New Jersey’s top election official, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, directed all election and county clerks’ offices to stay open at least eight hours each day through Nov. 5 for early voting. Voters can text their address to a number to receive an automated response telling them where to vote, she told reporters.
Voters lined up out the door of the Monmouth County election office in Freehold for early voting, and ballots were delivered to more than 100 displaced residents living in a temporary shelter, said county spokeswoman Laura Kirkpatrick. Two towns wiped out by the storm will vote in different locations, and polling places in other communities will be shifted as well, she said in an e-mail.
Connecticut Election Plans
Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill toured storm-damaged precincts in Greenwich, Trumbull and Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, and met with officials there to discuss election plans.
Fifty polling places in Connecticut were without power yesterday, Av Harris, Merrill’s spokesman, said in an e-mail. Officials won’t know until Nov. 5 how many polling locations will have to be moved, he said.
Power outages at polling places in Bridgeport, a Democratic stronghold, may influence the outcome of Connecticut’s Senate race.
The contest between Democratic Representative Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon may help determine which party has the majority in the Senate, which Democrats now control 53-47. Six polls conducted since Oct. 19 gave Murphy a six-percentage-point lead.
In Nassau County, on Long Island, election officials were still awaiting an answer to a request to county officials for 200 electrical generators, said William Biamonte, a county election board commissioner.
More than half of the county’s 376 polling places were still without power and another 38 were operating with generators, he said. Thirteen polling places, mostly in storm-lashed Long Beach, will be consolidated into four “super-sites” to be operated by generators, he said.
“We are good at rolling out elections, we are not good at firing up the grid or producing power generators,” he said.
Delivery of voting machines in Nassau County began yesterday after power was restored to the election board’s warehouse, allowing operation of the elevator, he said.
In neighboring Suffolk County, election officials announced the relocation of seven polling places that serve 21 precincts. More relocations will be announced if officials identify more polling places that are inaccessible to voters, the election board said in a statement.
At a press conference yesterday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg voiced frustration with the city’s election board, saying it is “basically run by nobody.”
The bipartisan board, independent of city government, must “find out what’s happened to all the private buildings that have polling sites in them and then coordinate with us on public sites,” the mayor said. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP.
“Let’s be nice and say they’ve had their problems,” Bloomberg said. “It’s a shame that some bureaucrats would screw it up and hopefully that won’t happen.”
Further inland, one of the election’s most hotly contested states, Ohio, is also without power at some of its polling places, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper. At least nine polling stations in and around Cleveland still had no power yesterday, the newspaper reported.
Two days after the storm hit the coast, Matt McClellan, a spokesman for the Ohio secretary of state’s office, said his state wasn’t hit “as badly” as others to the east. The weather didn’t interrupt early in-person voting at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, which has a generator in case the power goes off, spokesman Mike West said Oct. 31.
Ohio election officials don’t have independent authority to extend voting beyond Nov. 6 and would need a court order to do so, McClellan said.