Sandy-Struck East Coast Scrambles To Rebuild Polling Places

Friday, 02 Nov 2012 12:10 PM

 

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Officials along the storm-battered coasts of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut are working to identify alternate polling places for the Nov. 6 election to replace those without power or damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Electrical outages and flooding of beachfront communities in New Jersey made it difficult to contact municipal clerks to coordinate plans for the election four days away, officials said. Police in Nassau County outside New York City inspected 52 polling places that election officials couldn’t reach by phone.

New Jersey’s top election official, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, ordered local election boards to identify by noon today alternative locations for “inaccessible” polling places. To ease voting requirements, Guadagno directed all election and county clerks’ offices to stay open “at a minimum” of eight hours each day through Nov. 5 for early voting.

“Whether it’s fires or hurricanes or tornadoes,” election officials “are used to moving polling places,” said R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of Election Officials in Houston. Still, he said, “we are not used to moving polling places on very short notice.”

“With a major election on the horizon, what you are looking at” is “basically a logistical nightmare,” Lewis said yesterday in a telephone interview.

Biggest Storm

Sandy, the biggest Atlantic storm in history, caused at least 75 U.S. deaths and cut power to 8 million customers. As of yesterday morning 4.6 million customers remained without power, and of those more than 3 million were in New York and New Jersey, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

The voting disruptions will be concentrated in three states that aren’t expected to determine the outcome of the presidential race. President Barack Obama is projected by polls to defeat Republican Mitt Romney in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Even so, Connecticut’s Senate race between Democratic Representative Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon may help determine which party has the majority in the Senate, which Democrats now control 53-47. Six polls conducted since Oct. 19 give Murphy a six-percentage-point lead. The two are vying to replace independent Joe Lieberman, who caucuses with Democrats.

Connecticut Utilities

The two largest utilities serving Connecticut, Northeast Utilities’ Connecticut Light & Power and UIL Holding Corp.’s United Illuminating, said most affected homes and businesses would have power restored by Nov. 5 or Nov. 6.

Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill was scheduled today to meet with officials in Bridgeport, Trumbull and Greenwich about election preparation and tour storm-damaged precincts, her office said in a statement.

In New Jersey, residents of at least two beachfront communities in Monmouth County will vote elsewhere and many polling places will rely on portable generators, said county spokeswoman Laura Kirkpatrick.

With a population of more than 630,000, Monmouth County is located along the New Jersey shoreline that faces the mouth of New York harbor.

“Our issue is finding physical places to deliver voting machines to,” Kirkpatrick said in a telephone interview. ‘A couple of buildings no longer exist.”

Ideally, voters would be given advance notice by mail of a change in the location of a polling place. Kirkpatrick said Monmouth County officials are relying on local radio stations and newspapers.

Website Notices

Notices will be posted on the county’s website, though many people don’t have access to the Internet, she said. The county will “push it out every possible way that we can, hoping that neighbors are going to let other neighbors know,” Kirkpatrick said.

Residents of Sea Bright, on a barrier island south of the Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, were evacuated before the storm and will vote in another town, Kirkpatrick said. The storm destroyed the town’s municipal building, fire station and police station.

Union Beach, on Raritan Bay across from New York City’s borough of Staten Island, has “no polling places because the town is a mess,” Kirkpatrick said. Officials may need to find new voting places in two other beach communities, Keansburg and Belmar, she said.

Guadagno, who also serves as New Jersey’s secretary of state, told reporters in Moonachie yesterday that U.S. Defense Department trucks will be sent to towns where polling places are damaged or unreachable. They will bear signs saying “vote here,” Guadagno said.

Barrier Islands

To the south, in Ocean County, widespread power outages and flooding isolated 16 communities on barrier islands and slowed efforts to determine the extent of damage, said Jason Varano, an assistant supervisor for the election board.

Some of the county’s 220 voting locations were destroyed, so officials are “working on a game plan going forward,” he said.

Election officials have extended hours for early voting at two Ocean County locations, Toms River and Stafford township. These locations will be open every day through Nov. 5 to let people cast ballots in person before Election Day. Before the storm hit, 22,000 voters had cast early ballots, Varano said.

In Connecticut, only five of Bridgeport’s 23 polling places had electricity and those buildings were being used to shelter residents displaced by a 10-foot storm surge, said Av Harris, a state spokesman.

The state’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold, Bridgeport is important in Murphy’s Senate race against McMahon.

‘Serious Decisions’

Officials in Connecticut’s hardest-hit areas “have some pretty serious decisions” to make quickly, Harris said.

“We need to do everything we can to make sure that voting goes as smoothly as possible Tuesday because it will go on,” he said. “This is it. You can’t reschedule it for another day.”

As many as 90 of Connecticut’s 800 polling places were still without power yesterday, Merrill said in a statement. Almost 354,000 customers in the state didn’t have power as of 9 a.m. yesterday, the Energy Department said. At the peak, 626,559 Connecticut customers didn’t have electricity.

‘Won’t Be Disenfranchised’

In Nassau County, on Long Island, 143 of 375 polling places were without power yesterday, said William Biamonte, a county election board commissioner. He said the Long Island Power Authority told him that Long Beach, Woodmere and Island Park won’t have electricity restored by Election Day. Signs will be placed at polling places that are moved to inform voters of the change so “they won’t be disenfranchised,” he said.

He predicted that the typical 70 percent turnout among 900,000 registered voters in a presidential year will be depressed “by people just being busy getting their lives back together.”

If “all the logistical problems” county election officials have dealt with in the past were rolled “into a big ball, it would be a pimple on what we are looking at right now,” Biamonte said.


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