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E-Mail Votes Overwhelm Election Officials in Storm Zone

Voters Find Way to Polls Amid Confusion in Storm-Battered Region
A woman voter enters a polling site on election day in New York on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Citizens in storm-ravaged New York and New Jersey wandered from poll to poll after officials moved more than 240 balloting sites and fretted over the integrity of a vote being conducted partly over the Internet.

Governments strained to allow voters to participate in the election despite damage from Hurricane Sandy. In New York City, where almost 60 polling places were moved, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was running election shuttles from stricken areas. In Long Island beach towns, residents emerged from the rubble to vote. And across New Jersey, county officials tried to cope with Republican Governor Chris Christie’s decision to let displaced residents submit ballots via e-mail or fax until 8 p.m.

“I have grave concerns about the security of what’s being sent to me electronically,” said Michael Harper, clerk of the Hudson County Board of Elections.

“It’s never been like this,” said Harper, 36, while sitting in his Jersey City office behind a desk strewn with paperwork and food plates. The “mountain of paperwork” from e-mail ballot applications has resulted in a workload that’s “physically impossible” for the office to handle, he said.

Swamped Clerks

Following reports of long delays and voter confusion, New Jersey extended the deadline for clerks to count those e-mailed and faxed ballots until Nov. 9 at 8 p.m., according to an order from Republican Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno.

“The counties and the state are committing all available resources to quickly process e-mail, fax, and mail-in ballot applications and to send qualified voters a ballot,” she said in a statement. “Notwithstanding these efforts, it has become apparent that the county clerks are receiving applications at a rate that outpaces their capacity to process them.”

A request for an absentee ballot submitted through the Essex County clerk’s website yesterday morning hadn’t been answered by 3:45 p.m. today. A call to the office of County Clerk Christopher Durkin wasn’t answered.

The disruption, at least in the presidential race, will be more personal than political. New York and New Jersey aren’t considered swing states, and opinion polls show President Barack Obama will win both in the contest with Republican Mitt Romney.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey asked a judge in Superior Court in Newark to extend the access to ballots for those displaced by Sandy. The attempt failed, according to an e-mailed statement from Ed Barocas, acting executive director.

Last-Second Solution

In New Jersey, though, e-mailed ballots may swing local elections that sometimes are decided by a handful of votes, said Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. If the losers challenge the integrity of e-mail voting, that may result in contested elections, he said.

“You never want to make such a significant change so close to the election, or on the eve of the election,” J. Alex Halderman, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a recipe for more chaos, unfortunately.”

Confusion cropped up across the region, where many places still lack power one week after the Atlantic superstorm knocked out power to more than 8 million customers. Almost 974,000 were without electricity in the Northeast.

“Things are somewhat hectic in the metropolitan area now as we’re recovering from the storm and that’s going to be reflected at the polling places,” New York’s Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a Manhattan briefing today.

Shaky System

William Biamonte, the Nassau County Board of Elections’s Democratic commissioner, said the body is “rushing to get heating elements and lights” for the final hours of voting.

“These have been less than optimal conditions,” he said.

Mike Jones, a polling coordinator at Leo F. Giblyn elementary school in Freeport, Long Island, said the system was functioning tenuously.

“My biggest fear now is that the scanners will break down, and who knows where the technician is, or if he’s got gas,” he said.

Meanwhile, residents tried to adjust to a democratic apparatus remade on the fly. Cuomo issued an order yesterday allowing residents to vote outside their districts.

Phyllis Beard and her husband, Shelly, bounced from one Long Island voting location to another. They were at Oceanside High School, their third stop.

Seeking Suffrage

“Nobody has gas to get around, and they are sending us here and there,” said Phyllis Beard, 74, a retired off-track betting employee. “We get in there and they don’t have the registration books, no voting material, no booths.”

Confusion about where to vote was common on Brooklyn’s Coney Island, one of the areas hardest hit by Sandy.

Abdul Suluki, 83, has been voting at the same polling station two blocks from his high-rise apartment building on Mermaid Avenue and West 23rd Street for years.

“They wait till the last minute this morning, they changed it and said you can’t go there no more,” said the retired auto mechanic, who ended up casting his ballot at Abraham Lincoln High School at 2800 Ocean Parkway.

Suluki said it took about 45 minutes to find the new location.

American Rite

Along the storm-lashed New Jersey shore, Ocean and Monmouth counties moved more than 180 polling sites, many in beachfront communities that suffered severe damage.

In Ocean County, a bus equipped with 12 voting machines went to eight shelters to allow as many as 15,000 displaced residents to cast early votes yesterday, said George L. Gilmore, the county’s election-board chairman.

In the worst-hit areas, many found a sense of pride in the national ritual.

On Long Beach and Atlantic Beach in Nassau County on Long Island, where piles of furniture and garbage line the streets, many residents took a break from sorting through their belongings. Three polling places that were flooded were consolidated into one.

“We have no power, we’re freezing and I have nothing and I still voted,” said Rachel Cabrera, 23.

Patrick Haugh, a retired New York City Sanitation Department supervisor and 31-year resident, said people up and down the street were encouraging one other.

“I’m an American,” he said. “I’ve always voted.”

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