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Will Superstorm Sandy Keep People From Voting?

New Jersey will offer more options, including voting this weekend. New York looks at new polling sites.
 
 
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Despite power outages and storm damage from Hurricane Sandy, early voting in 2012’s presidential election will continue this weekend in hard-hit states—with New Jersey and Virgina extending hours—and continue on Tuesday, November 6, according to state and county election officials contacted Friday.   

“Election Day is Tuesday. There’s nothing that can be done about that,” Tom Connelly, New York State Board of Elections Deputy Director of Public Information, said, noting that the date of every presidential election is fixed by the U.S. Constitution.

“I would imagine that there would likely be a negative effect on turnout,” he said, noting that the last time an Election Day followed a major storm many people stayed home to clean up. “People had other priorities.”

Election officials in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania contacted by AlterNet on Friday described their efforts to prepare for voters this weekend. Most notably, county offices in New Jersey will be open all weekend so people can vote early, and in the hardest hit areas of New York City and Long Island preparations are being made for alternative voting sites, including bringing in power, lights and ballot-counting scanners.

“We are prepared to handle emergencies,” said Joanne Arena, Union County, New Jersey, Board of Elections Deputy Administrator, who said her ocean-bordering county was delivering electronic voting machines to polling places and expected power to be restored by Tuesday. “The state has a handle on it, as best they can.”

The overall impression that state and local election officials in the arc from Philadelphia to New York City gave on Friday was that steps were being taken to ensure that people would be able to vote, including directives from state officials in both political parties that have relaxed deadlines for voting by absentee ballot (applications have to be in by the end of business hours Friday), or opening New Jersey county clerk offices all day Friday through Monday (8:30 a.m to 4:30 p.m.) so people can vote early, or creating consolidated polling places (New York) in the hardest hit areas

Notably, in New York State, the 2012 paper ballots have been printed and are ready to be distributed to local polls. The worst-case scenario would see those paper ballots taken from field voting sites to more central locations to be counted. But New York State’s electronic vote counting scanners also have back-up batteries if power is an issue.           

New York State

The New York State Board of Elections spokesman Connelly said that every polling place was being inspected for water damage and power—an assessment that will end today. The county BOEs are trying to determine if polling places can be moved or consolidated, he said. The areas closest to the ocean have the most water damage—not just in New York City—but on Long Island’s southern flank, and up the Hudson River north of New York City.

The site assessment evaluates whether a site can be used, he said, and what would be needed to to supplement the operation, especially if there's no electricity. “Generators could be used for lighting and for the machines inside the buildings and in parking lots,” he said. “The voting counting scanners can run on batteries. In New York City, they have a 16-hour reserve power. Outside New York City, some only have a two-hour reserve.”

All the paper ballots have been printed, Connelly said. It would be possible to collect them at polls and take them to another location to be scanned if need be, he said. That happened in a few locations last year when Election Day came after storms Irene and Lee. “In some locations, makeshift ballot boxes were used to collect the ballots, with observers from the poltical parties and others watching,” he said.

If polling places are moved, Connelly said that every county BOE has a communications plan to inform voters. He said efforts would be made to coordinate with the local press, and revised polling locations would be posted on websites, “feeding information to everyone.” He also said that the state BOE urged counties to post a person at the former polling place to tell voters where the new location is. If that’s not possible, they should put up signs.

Connelly also said that some jurisdictions might be able to add a day of voting if turnout on Tuesday fell below 25 percent of their registered voters. There is a little-used section in state law that allows election jurisdisctions after a disaster to request an additional day of voting if the turnout drops below that level. That additional day would have to happen within 20 days of November 6 and would only be for people who were registered for the presidential election in the affected jurisdiction, he said. This would only be in-person voting—not by absentee. Those requests would be handled by the county BOE.

New Jersey

New Jersey election officials also are planning to hold the election on Tuesday.

“We are delivering the machines to the polling places. The polling places should have power by Tuesday,” said Joanne Arena, Deputy Administator for the Union County BOE. “We are actually delivering everything.”

The New Jersey Lt. Governor, which oversees state elections, issued detailed instructions on Thursday to expand voting options from Friday through Monday—allowing weekend voting at county offices and making plans to deputize an “authorized messenger” to go to “State-supported shelters” to help people vote there, if people want to vote that way. It also suspended other technicalities that would allow the state to create temporary polls near previously designated locations.

“Our office and the county clerk office wil be open all weekend long,”Arena said. “People can go to the county clerk’s office to vote. These would be mail-in ballots that would be opened on Election Day. We are allowing people to do that. I think that will make people feel more secure.”

Philadelphia

Senior election officials at Philadelphia City Hall did not return AlterNet’s calls by press time. However, lower-level staff said that while power was out in the city after the storm, it has mostly been restored and that voting in this state’s top Democratic stronghold should not be impacted by Tuesday.

Hundreds of people who are concerned about voting have come to City Hall to ask about it, one staffer said, suggesting that there was still a desire by a good portion of the public to vote regardless of the storm’s obstacles.

In Maryland and Connecticut, early voting deadlines were extended this week, also in response to the storm. In Virginia, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell asked his state’s county registrars to extend early voting hours into the evening this weekend.

Virginia State Board of Elections Secretary Don Palmer isued a statement saying, “Unless conditions render the voting process unsafe for general registrars and employees and voters, SBE encourages general registrars to keep the general registrar office open and to continue the in-person voting process.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, the low-wage economy, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).

 
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