New Jersey Voters Turn Out, Despite Obstacles and Irregularities

Lee Keough | November 7, 2012 | More Issues
In the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, New Jerseyans do whatever's necessary to make their votes count

Credit: Tara Nurin
In Seaview Village, poll workers used a generator to run the voting machines, heat the site, and illuminate a single spotlight.
Despite personal hardships, shifting polling sites, frustration and anger over electronic and provisional ballots, and confusion and miscommunication regarding new voting rules, New Jerseyans made on thing clear on Tuesday: they wanted to exercise their right to vote.

Turnout was high throughout much of the state, despite reports of voting irregularities that included jammed fax lines; email inboxes filled to overflowing with requests for ballots; shortages of provisional ballots at many sites; and gloomy polling places lit only by generator power.

And that’s the short list.

“We have so little control over anything right now,” said one Romney voter from Belmar whose power was restored just last night. “That made it all the more important to me to come here and take advantage of our ability to exercise control over something this meaningful.”

That sentiment was echoed by many in the Garden State, even those whose homes or businesses were decimated by Superstorm Sandy.

More Ways to Get the Vote Out

Despite the many problems voters encountered on Tuesday, which are sure to affect local elections — if not the presidential and congressional elections — many praised the state’s attempt to give residents more ways to cast their ballots.

“This was an extraordinary election,” said Kerry Margaret Butch, executive director of the New Jersey League of Women Voters.

“We saw a lot of [irregular] activity, but given the number of people displaced, I have to applaud the efforts of the state,” she added.

Not all residents were as pleased, particularly with the problem of electronic voting.

Lt. Governor and Secretary of State Kim Guadagno had issued an order to allow voters to request an electronic ballot from their county clerk’s office via fax or email. Initially, displaced voters were told they would be sent an official ballot by the same method and that they would have to return it by 8 p.m. Tuesday.

But due to complaints that fax lines did not pick up and email was not returned, the Division of Elections extended the deadline for response by county clerk’s offices until Friday at noon. Voters will have until 8 p.m. on Friday to submit ballots.

“Our fax machine is burnt out,” said Eva O. Yanez, Essex County election supervisor, who started receiving email and fax ballots on Monday. But her office was also
trying to field calls from voters who were nervous that their ballots had gotten lost in cyberspace.

Due to the widespread confusion about electronic voting and shifting polling places — Essex County alone moved 57 sites — voters were being advised by election watchers such as the American Civil Liberties Union to request a provisional ballot from any polling place in the state. Even if the ballot did not include local races, statewide votes would still be recorded.

The Paper Chase

But many polling sites ran out of provisional ballots early in the day. There was also a report of unsecured provisional ballots, causing some voters to fear election fraud.

Michael Harper, clerk of Hudson County’s board of elections, said he was taking calls from voters who wanted to cast their provisional ballots in other states.

Poll workers from many areas seemed uninformed about voting directives. There were reports of voters being asked to provide identification in order to vote, and workers not being aware of the changing regulations or polling places. There was also confusion about who was eligible for provisional or electronic voting (anyone displaced by the storm or an early responder).

That confusion was not the fault of poll workers or county boards of elections, said Harper. With dozens of polling sites running on generators, it made it difficult to communicate, he said.

“How am I to move a directive onto 8,600 people who have no power, no lights, and no water.” said Harper. Commenting on the near overlap of Hurricane Sandy and the presidential election, he said, “Together, it’s a perfect storm.”

Still, many poll workers throughout the state were praised for their efforts. Many county clerk’s offices worked this past weekend, handling early voting ballots. In Jersey City, the county clerk’s office reported a flood of over 4,000 early votes and lines out the door with voters waiting to hand in mail-in ballots.

In Brick Township, which is under 6 p.m. mandatory evacuation orders, the Seaview Village polling place remained open until 8 p.m. for local residents. When they began work Tuesday morning, the community center was pitch black because of storm damage. They ran the machines, heat, and a single spotlight off a generator.

“When we came in at 5:15 this morning, there was nothing but stars,” said Greg Mennuti, a poll worker. Despite the extenuating factors, however, turnout was almost as high as in 2008, according to workers.

Earlier this week, Guadagno announced that National Guard trucks outfitted with voting machines would be deployed to areas without power. Instead, many sites were powered by generators.

The Ocean County Board of Elections did provide a mobile voting unit that visited shelters and elsewhere. And in Hudson County, National Guard members assigned to help the area cope with the storm did pitch in.

One National Guard member in Hoboken noted that most people had no problems getting to the polls. But some seniors did ask for help.

“It’s your civic duty to vote,” he said, praising the spirit of teamwork in Hoboken.

Given all the confusion, the New Jersey ACLU went to Essex County Superior Court asking for voters to be allowed to use the “Official Federal Absentee Write-In Ballot,” which overseas and military voters are allowed to use. The request was denied.

Nevertheless, the state’s board of elections are expected to have plenty of ballots to count during the rest of the week. Provisional and email and faxed ballots are certain to total in the tens of thousands.

Annie Knox, Tara Nurin, and Joe Tyrrell contributed to this report.