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Hurricane Sandy Still a Threat -- to New Jersey Elections

Colleen O'Dea | November 5, 2012

In wake of devastating storm, state takes steps to accommodate displaced voters and relocated polling places.

sandy beachhouse
Credit: philly.com

On the eve of a bitterly contested presidential election, it's unclear how -- or to what degree -- Hurricane Sandy will impact efforts to get out the vote in New Jersey.

It's not shaping up to be a pretty picture.

At least some voters in about 20 percent of New Jersey municipalities are going to have to vote in a different location tomorrow, adding new confusion to a state struggling to recover from the hurricane's devastation

And while Gov. Chris Christie opened last-minute fax and email voting to residents over the weekend, the process -- which involves printing, scanning, and faxing or emailing an application and then the actual ballot -- could prove burdensome. It also will make casting ballots virtually impossible for displaced voters without access to a printer, scanner, or fax.

That could add up to quite a few voters.

Roughly 1 million New Jersey homes and businesses remained without power yesterday, and thousands more residents have lost their homes or businesses, making it unclear how many will be motivated to turn out to vote tomorrow -- or able to vote at all. Some are living in homes with generators and some are hunkering down without, but others have moved in with relatives or into hotels. Without a real precedent, it is hard to predict what the turnout will be a week after Sandy devastated the state.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Ernest Landante, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kim Guadagno. “New Jersey has never been through anything like this before.”

New Jersey officials have taken extraordinary steps to ensure that people have a place to vote, and some have been taking advantage of that and showing up at county clerks’ offices to vote over the weekend.

“Despite the widespread damage Hurricane Sandy has caused, New Jersey is committed to working through the enormous obstacles before us to hold an open and transparent election befitting our state and the resiliency of its citizens,” said Guadagno, who is also the state’s lieutenant governor.

Living up to that promise, however, could prove a daunting task.

Those who wait and try to go to their usual polling place could find it shuttered. Landante said roughly 305 of 3,000 polling places -- 1 in 10 -- remained unusable yesterday.

Finding the Right Polling Place

Using information collected by the New Jersey League of Women Voters, NJ Spotlight calculated that at least 119 municipalities have moved at least one polling location. The majority of those are in Bergen County (37 towns) and Monmouth (29 towns). Only partial information is available for Somerset and hard-hit Ocean County, where Seaside Heights literally lost its polling place. So far, no information is available for seven counties, including Atlantic and Hudson, which were also devastated by the storm.

The Secretary of State’s Voter Information website directs people to two locations for updated polling places: VoterHub and Google's Polling Place Lookup. They can also text “where” to 877877.

All of these tools access data from the Pew Center on the States’ Voter Information project. But because polling locations are a moving target -- power companies continue working to restore electricity across the state -- the best thing to do is wait until Tuesday morning to check, Landante said.

“There may be some places that are still up in the air,” said Landante. “Tuesday you will get the most reliable information.”

Earlier last week, Guadagno had said that trucks with National Guardsmen would be stationed at polling locations where people could not vote due to flood or other damage. Christie said voters would complete paper ballots there. With clerks scrambling to move locations, it is unclear how many, if any, of these would be used.

Landante said Guadagno’s directive to the clerks requires them to advertise polling places in a number of ways, including sending messages via reverse-911 to citizens. The directive also requires that a polling place that has moved display a sign indicating its new location.

Additionally, according to an earlier directive, the clerks’ offices have been open during daylight hours all weekend and will be open again today until 4:30 p.m. for people to vote. And in some locations, voters have been doing just that, even waiting in line to cast ballots over the weekend.

The state is allowing people who fled New Jersey in search of shelter to cast ballots by fax or email. The caveat, though, is that the ballot cannot be completed online. To ensure the integrity of the process, ballots must be printed, filled out, signed, and then faxed or scanned and emailed back. This could be difficult for people who can get email via a smartphone or laptop but without access to a printer, scanner, or fax.

“Yes, there are some steps, but it is another way of making election day accessible to folks who, without it, would not be able to cast ballots,” Landante said.

There are two other ways people who are in New Jersey can vote. Those staying in a shelter within their county can complete a ballot and have a messenger deliver it to the clerk’s office. And anyone can vote anywhere in the state via a provisional ballot, though only for those races that are the same in every county -- president, U.S. Senate, and the two statewide questions -- which could be especially helpful to those providing assistance in a county remote from where they live.

“It’s not possible to have 500 ballots available everywhere, but at a minimum you can vote for the statewide races,” said Landante.

The Superstorm Factor

Whether Sandy will affect turnout or the outcome of races remains to be seen. Four years ago, the last time the presidential race topped the ballot, almost three-quarters of 5.3 million registered voted.

This year, almost 5.5 million are registered to vote in New Jersey, where statewide races include the U.S. Senate seat held by Robert Menendez and ballot questions regarding state judges’ salaries and a $750 million higher education bond issue. There is a lot more for people to vote on: All 12 House of Representatives seats are on the ballot, as are county freeholder and local mayor and council seats. And, for the first time, school board members are on the November ballot.

Both President Obama and Menendez had substantial leads in the most recent polls, but a loss of significant numbers of voters in staunchly Democratic counties – including Hudson, where both Jersey City and Hoboken suffered from significant flooding -- could, at the least, narrow those margins. At the same time, the Republican stronghold of Ocean County was devastated by winds and floods.

Incumbents were considered shoe-ins in all but one or two congressional districts, but it’s unclear whether the outcome could change in a district where large numbers of displaced or powerless voters chose not to go to the polls, or where people can't figure out where to vote.

What is certain, though, is that complete election results will not be available immediately, or perhaps for weeks.

Fighting Voter Fraud To prevent voter fraud, all ballots not cast at the polls on Tuesday -- those cast via email or fax, or provisionally -- will not be counted until after the election is completed to ensure that a person did not send in a ballot and also vote in person, according to Landante.

And Guadagno has extended until November 19 the deadline for county clerks to receive ballots by mail for any ballot postmarked by November 5.

Speaking in Hudson County yesterday, Christie said there was no way to tell how long it would take before the outcome of the elections was known.

“How the hell should I know?” he quipped. “The more the votes, the longer it will take to count.”

NJ Spotlight is part of NJ News Commons, a consortium of news organizations across the state, that is providing real-time voting information and monitoring voting problems.

This effort includes the NJ Voter Problem Hotline, 732-903-VOTE (732-903-8683), which will be monitored continuously by students at Montclair State University during polling hours on Tuesday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. It also includes a Crowdmap -- NJVote.crowdmap.com -- where voters can record any problems.

Student operators will also map voting problems recorded on the hotline. And there is a live blog, #NJVote, pulling in the latest tweets, photos, stories, and official updates on the voting situation on Tuesday.

For information on the races, including background on the candidates and their positions, stories, campaign spending information, and maps of the districts, visit the NJ Spotlight Voter Guide. Among other things, this tool allows voters to enter their address and be taken directly to their district.

Additionally, the home page of the League of Women Voters includes links to polling location changes. And voters with questions can also call 1-877-NJVOTER (1-877-658-6837).

Colleen O'Dea is an editor at large for NJ Spotlight.

Read more in More Issues, Politics, Sandy
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