NY, NJ officials help displaced residents vote
NEW YORK (AP) — Authorities in New York and New Jersey were set to drive some displaced voters to their polling sites and direct others to cast ballots elsewhere as residents insisted the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy wouldn’t stop them from participating in Tuesday’s election.
“Nothing is more important than voting. What is the connection between voting and this?” said Alex Shamis, a resident of hard-hit Staten Island, gesturing to his mud-filled home.
Election officials in both states were guardedly optimistic that power would be restored and most polling places would be open in all but the worst-hit areas. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Monday allowing residents to cast a so-called affidavit, or provisional ballot, at any polling place in the state for president and statewide office holders, an opportunity New Jersey was extending to voters as well.
“Compared to what we have had to deal with in the past week, this will be a walk in the park when it comes to voting,” Cuomo said.
Provisional ballots are counted after elected officials confirm a voter’s eligibility.
Authorities were also sensitive to concerns about potential disenfranchisement and were taking steps to ensure voters were kept informed of continued problems or changes to their voting locations.
Ernie Landante, a spokesman for the New Jersey Division of Elections, said fewer than 100 polling places around the state were without power compared with 800 just days ago, and said the state has abandoned its earlier plan to use military trucks as makeshift polling places. Most voters will be able to cast ballots at their regular polling sites, he said.
Landante also said the state had taken extra steps to make sure people displaced by Sandy’s destruction would be able to vote, like allowing “authorized messengers” to pick up as many mail-in ballots as they request for people in shelters or away from their homes.
“We are doing everything we can in this extraordinary situation not to disenfranchise voters displaced by Sandy. Their voices and their votes will be heard no differently than anyone else’s,” Landante said.
But authorities abruptly switched gears on an additional directive that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office announced allowing displaced New Jersey residents to vote through email and fax.
The directive allowed voters to request and file a ballot electronically. But under pressure from voting rights advocates, officials said those voters would have to submit a paper ballot along with the electronic filing — a rule the state’s military personnel and residents living overseas are required to follow as well.
Larry Norden, a voting-rights advocate at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the email and fax option wouldn’t be viable for voters still without power.
“My biggest concern about all this is confusion. These places need to take statewide action to make sure people who have been displaced know there is some way they can vote,” Norden said.
Workers scrambled at the last minute to set up a polling site Tuesday morning on New York City’s storm-ravaged Staten Island.
An hour before the 6 a.m. poll opening, flares were set up at the entrance to Public School 52 in the Midland Beach neighborhood. There was no light at all as police helped the poll workers get gas for their generator.
The voting machines had to be retrieved from inside the school and moved into tents, and heaters were stacked on tables in the tents. The temperature was around 29 degrees as bundled up voters began to line up in the dark.
Some regions most affected by Sandy were seeking creative ways to help residents cast their ballot.
In Ocean County along the New Jersey coast, officials hired a converted camper to bring mail-in ballots to shelters in Toms River, Pemberton and Burlington Township. Some 75 people in Toms River alone took advantage of the service Monday, officials said. The camper will either continue to serve the shelters or be converted into an emergency voting precinct Tuesday.
“It’s great. This is one less thing I have to think about,” said Josephine DeFeis, who fled her home in storm-devastated Seaside Heights and cast her ballot in the camper Monday.
In New York City, authorities planned to run shuttle buses every 15 minutes Tuesday in storm-slammed areas to bring voters to the polls.
Just 60 of the city’s 1,350 polling sites were unusable and residents who vote in those places would be directed elsewhere, Polanco said. He said if a voter relocated to another polling site didn’t show up on the list of people eligible to vote, he or she would be given a provisional ballot.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged city residents to check the Board of Elections website to find out about polling changes.
“Vote. It is our most precious right,” Bloomberg said Monday.
Staten Island resident Paul Hoppe said he probably wouldn’t vote. His home, a block from the beach, was uninhabitable, his family was displaced and their possessions were ruined.
“We’ve got too many concerns that go beyond the national scene,” Hoppe said.