Displaced NJ Voters Get Help Finding Where to Cast Ballots

Colleen O'Dea | November 6, 2012 | More Issues, Sandy
Interest groups, interactive map, hot line, blog site keep track of polling places

Jean Pasternak of Millburn left her cold, dark home in Millburn last week for Pennsylvania, but she did not want to give up her vote. So she downloaded, printed and faxed a ballot application to the Essex County clerk.

But when she called to find out what to do next, staff at the clerk’s office first told her they didn’t know and then she couldn’t get through, getting only a busy signal. Unwilling to give up her vote, she is considering driving back home today to make sure her vote counts.

Pasternak was one of about 70 people who called the NJ Voter Problem Hotline (732-903-VOTE or 732-903-8683), an effort by NJ Spotlight and the other organizations that are part of the NJ News Commons consortium monitoring voting problems throughout the state. Other places to log problems are at NJVote.crowdmap.com and by the #NJVote blog.

On the eve of what is undoubtedly going to be New Jersey’s most chaotic election in decades, county clerks announced several dozen additional polling location changes – and, in some cases, they’ve returned voting to the original location after power was restored, potentially adding to the confusion.

In addition, the online tools the state is promoting for voters to find where to vote are providing spotty information at best.

Several groups are urging voters having trouble casting ballots to contact them.

“Making sure the state’s directives are enforced uniformly across the state is what we have been working on all day,” said Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union.

She said many of the directives issued by Secretary of State Kim Guadagno have caused confusion and ACLU staff have been trying to help voters sort it all out. Both the ACLU – 973-642-2086 — and the New Jersey League of Women Voters — 1-800-792-VOTE – will be available today to answer questions from voters.

New Jersey has instituted a host of changes to help voters displaced or left without power by Sandy more than a week ago. The email/fax option – which still requires voters to print and scan or fax ballots – is one of those causing confusion and problems. This method includes the additional requirement that the voter sign a form giving up his right to cast a secret ballot, which may turn some off from voting this way.

Voters trying to get to the polls today are likely to face additional issues, as the secretary of state’s office said roughly 10 percent of the state’s polling places were left without power, flooded or otherwise damaged.

NJ Spotlight’s count now has at least one voting location in a total of 150 municipalities moved to a new location.

The state Division of Elections’ website suggests voters find where to vote by consulting one of two tools – voterhub.us or www.google.com/elections/ed/us/vote. But a test of these sites last night was not encouraging, as in two of three cases they did not identify any polling place for communities that have moved voting places. Both Sea Bright and Moonachie have changed the election site to a location in a neighboring community, but entering addresses for those communities into the two sites generated the following error message, “Sorry, we couldn’t automatically locate your polling place at this time. Information on your polling place will be available shortly before the election. Press back to try a different address or click here to visit your state’s official poll locator.” The sites did properly direct Mantoloking voters to a new site at the Point Pleasant Municipal Building.

NJ Spotlight’s Voters Guide includes all the polling changes of which we are aware, as well as comprehensive information about the races, the candidates and their positions.

According to the state elections officials, the best way to find out where to vote today is to text “where” to 877877. Only tests by voters will determine if this works.

Guadagno has ordered that typical polling locations must post the location to which the voting site was moved, so voters who find a voting location shuttered should also find a sign telling them where they can cast ballots. Additionally, voters can go to the county clerk’s office and vote through 3 p.m. today. Long lines of people trying to vote were reported Saturday, Sunday and Monday and some county clerk offices.

While state officials say they are doing just about everything they can to ensure everyone can vote, some of those representing candidates remain concerned.

“As New Jersey continues the recovery process from last week’s devastating storm, it is important that all residents know they can still exercise their right to vote and that their vote will count,” said Mike Soliman, campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, who released an ad yesterday spelling out how voters can cast ballots today. “We want to make sure everybody is aware of the options available to them so that anybody who wants to cast a vote will be able to do so.”

Michael Muller, spokesman for Democrat Shelley Adler, whose race against Rep. Jon Runyan, R-3rd, is considered the closest in the state, said the storm has left the campaign with unique challenges.

“We have really focused our GOTV effort because of the impacts of power outages and cleanup. It is complicated, but we are making adjustments,” he said.

The state’s Communications Workers of America union is also concerned, putting out a notice to all its members stating, “If you are not able to vote or if you believe you are unjustly being denied the right to vote, please call CWA District 1 at 609-278-6588, or call your local for more information.”