Officials Rush to Find Ways for the Storm-Tossed to Vote
Elected officials in New York and New Jersey scrambled Monday to enable displaced citizens to vote in the election on Tuesday, relocating scores of coastal polling places that had become unusable because of power failures, flooding or evacuations.
New Jersey and New York both said they would allow voters uprooted by Hurricane Sandy to cast provisional ballots anywhere in their states.
“Just because you’re displaced doesn’t mean you should be disenfranchised,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said in announcing the step on Monday.
But the provisional ballots would, in many cases, allow residents to vote only in statewide contests and in the presidential election, in which President Obama is heavily favored in both states. The ballots could not be used in local and Congressional races, which in some areas are far more competitive.
New Jersey went further, saying it will let displaced voters vote by fax or e-mail. Ballot-integrity advocates warned that this raised risks of fraud by hackers, or mischief by partisan local officials because electronic ballots lack secrecy and are not safeguarded by witnesses.
Across the storm-damaged region, bleary-eyed, disheveled residents drove long distances and waited in long lines at government offices to cast early ballots Monday, and many said voting felt like an important step back toward normalcy.
In New York, there are very tight Congressional or legislative races in Queens, on Staten Island, on Long Island and in Westchester County, all of which were hit hard by the storm. Candidates in those races went to great lengths to ensure that their supporters could surmount the extraordinary obstacles to voting this year.
On Staten Island, the Congressional campaign of Mark Murphy, a Democrat running against Representative Michael G. Grimm, a Republican, sent volunteers to gasoline lines across the borough with iPhones to help idling voters figure out where they should go on Tuesday. Mr. Grimm’s campaign said it was recruiting volunteers with full gas tanks to transport to the polls voters whose cars were destroyed or had no gas.
Many voters already confronted confusion and signs of chaos as they sought to vote Monday, or to figure out where they could vote on Tuesday.
“They told me I can register today, but I can’t vote in this election,” said Helen Colon, 69, a retired woman who journeyed to the Staten Island’s eastern shore to register her disabled husband to vote, after trying but failing to do so online. “At least that’s what I think they said.”
Local and state officials were plainly having trouble conveying information about Election Day obstacles and remedies. New Jersey officials could not say how many polling places had been moved — though they said fewer than 100 still needed “some resolution.” The outdated Web site for hard-hit Ocean County directed residents of Seaside Heights to that shore town’s flooded, unelectrified, empty community center.
In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg worried aloud that the relocation of polling places could depress turnout — since, he said, motivating people to cast their ballots was a chore even in an ordinary election year.
“The question is: Will they make the effort?” he said.
Polling places require power to run their electronic machines. As of Monday night, more than 100 polling places in New York State had been changed, including about 60 in the city. Most were in Brooklyn and Queens; in two cases, in the Rockaways and the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx, the city was setting up polling places in tents powered by generators and outfitted with portable heaters.
The city’s Board of Elections also arranged for shuttle buses that would run every 15 minutes to ferry voters to and from polling places in three areas hit particularly hard by the storm: the Rockaways, Coney Island and Staten Island.
Juan Carlos Polanco, a commissioner on the Board of Elections, said it had done everything in its power to publicize the new locations of polling places.
“We want New Yorkers to be patient tomorrow,” Mr. Polanco said. “Elections are hard enough to run as it is.”
But the board has a troubled track record, even when elections are not preceded by hurricanes. In 2010, computer malfunctions and delayed openings of polling places led Mr. Bloomberg to pronounce the board’s handling of the election a “royal screw-up.” In June, the five-way Democratic primary for Representative Charles B. Rangel’s seat took weeks to be counted.
Local elected officials were not optimistic about Tuesday. Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer, a Manhattan Democrat, said she had heard from utility workers scheduled to work 12-hour shifts on Election Day who had no idea how they were supposed to vote. And Councilman Jumaane D. Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, questioned why thousands of voters taking refuge at evacuation shelters would not be able to cast provisional ballots at their shelters.
Mr. Williams said, “My guess is if you don’t have your house, you have no place to live, you may not have food, this is probably not at the top of your list of things to do.”
In Ocean County, officials took extra steps to allow displaced residents to vote. They sent a mobile voting bus to shelters there and in adjacent Burlington County. They also sought to address the problem of provisional ballots by printing 50,000 generic ballots and allowing voters to fill in the names of their local candidates.
For candidates in tight races, the effort to get voters to the polls was both frantic and delicate.
On Long Island, volunteers for Randy Altschuler, the Republican challenging Representative Timothy H. Bishop, a Democrat, called voters to make sure they knew that the election was still taking place and to offer rides. But every conversation began with a question about whether the voters needed help.
“It’s really a totally different script,” said Diana Weir, Mr. Altschuler’s campaign manager.
Many barrier-island voters forced from their homes seemed to clutch at the chance to vote as if it were a memento salvaged from the flotsam of their pre-storm lives.
Justine Fricchione, 29, of Lavallette, N.J., voted at the county building in Toms River on Monday, she said, because without television, Internet or a charged cellphone, she had not been able to find out where to go on Election Day. She was forced to move because her home was severely damaged, and then again when her grandmother’s house lost power. But as the daughter of a onetime Jersey City councilman, she said, she was not going to be deterred.
“It’s your right to vote,” she said. “You figure out how to get there, and you just do it.”