Election officials in storm-ravaged New York and New Jersey are moving dozens of polling sites and seeking backup power for hundreds more that lack electricity before the Nov. 6 vote.
In New Jersey coastal areas hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, officials inspected damage in washed-out communities to determine the need for new polling sites. Some election supervisors gained access to barrier islands yesterday for the first time after Governor Chris Christie lifted an emergency declaration that barred them from the hardest-hit areas.
The Northeast is recovering from the largest Atlantic storm, which killed at least 96 people and initially cut off electricity to 8 million customers. The U.S. Energy Department said as of 2 p.m. yesterday 3.5 million customers were still without power, including 2.7 million in New York and New Jersey.
Election planning in New York City “is still very much a work in progress” because “substantial areas in Queens and Staten Island have poll sites that are inaccessible,” said Doug Kellner, co-chairman of the state election board. About two dozen polling sites on Long Island’s south shore and on Staten Island pose “a very difficult situation,” he said in a telephone interview.
“There is going to be an election, and it won’t be perfect but we will do the best we can,” Kellner said.
Probable election disruptions are concentrated in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Polls project that President Barack Obama will easily carry the three states in his re-election bid against Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
U.S. election officials haven’t had to cope with storm damage as extensive as from Sandy so it’s difficult to project how the disruption will affect voter turnout, said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who studies voter habits.
“Just as a snowstorm or a bad thunderstorm on Election Day can depress turnout, it stands to reason there can be lower turnout as a consequence of Sandy,” he said in a telephone interview. Storm victims “have much better things to do than vote at this point,” he said. “They are going to be taking care of their situation and their homes.”
New Jersey’s governor said specially outfitted trailers will be sent to areas without electricity so that voters can cast paper ballots.
“You’ll go to the same place you always go to if the power is on, and if it’s not, you’ll go in and vote old-school with a paper ballot,” Christie told reporters in Brick. “It will take a little longer to count votes this year but it’ll probably be a late night anyway.”
New Jersey’s top election official, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, directed all election and county clerks’ offices to stay open at least eight hours each day through Nov. 5 for early voting. Voters can text their address to a number to receive an automated response telling them where to vote, she told reporters.
Voters lined up out the door of the Monmouth County election office in Freehold for early voting and ballots were delivered to more than 100 displaced residents living in a temporary shelter, said county spokeswoman Laura Kirkpatrick. Two towns wiped out by the storm will vote in different locations, and polling places in other communities will be shifted as well, she said in an email.
Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill toured storm-damaged precincts in Greenwich, Trumbull and Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, and met with officials there to discuss election plans.
Fifty polling places in Connecticut were without power yesterday, Av Harris, Merrill’s spokesman, said in an email. Officials won’t know until Nov. 5 how many polling locations will have to be moved, he said.
Power outages at polling places in Bridgeport, a Democratic stronghold, may influence the outcome of Connecticut’s Senate race.
The contest between Democrat Rep. 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 gave Murphy a six-percentage-point lead.
In Nassau County, on Long Island, election officials were still awaiting an answer to a request to county officials for 200 electrical generators, said William Biamonte, a county election board commissioner.
More than half of the county’s 376 polling places were still without power and another 38 were operating with generators, he said. Thirteen polling places, mostly in storm-lashed Long Beach, will be consolidated into four “super- sites” to be operated by generators, he said.
“We are good at rolling out elections, we are not good at firing up the grid or producing power generators,” he said.
Delivery of voting machines in Nassau County began yesterday after power was restored to the election board’s warehouse, allowing operation of the elevator, he said.
In neighboring Suffolk County, election officials announced the relocation of seven polling places that serve 21 precincts. More relocations will be announced if officials identify more polling places that are inaccessible to voters, the election board said in a statement.
At a press conference yesterday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg voiced frustration with the city’s election board, saying it is “basically run by nobody.”
The bipartisan board, independent of city government, must “find out what’s happened to all the private buildings that have polling sites in them and then coordinate with us on public sites,” the mayor said. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP.
“Let’s be nice and say they’ve had their problems,” Bloomberg said. “It’s a shame that some bureaucrats would screw it up and hopefully that won’t happen.”
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