Sandy Makes Election Preparation Difficult For Storm-Wracked Tri-State Area
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Election officials were ordering generators, moving voting locations and figuring out how to transport poll workers displaced from coastal areas as Tuesday’s presidential election became the latest challenge for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and others — all whacked by Superstorm Sandy.
The storm, which devastated Tri-State communities with power outages and flooding had already disrupted early voting in parts of New Jersey.
With less than a week to go before the general election, officials were scrambling to ensure orderly and fair balloting in places still dark or under water.
Few expected the tight presidential contest between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to be affected by voting problems caused by the storm.
The states crippled most by Sandy — New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — are largely Democratic and considered safely in Obama’s camp.
But Connecticut has a competitive race to replace retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman, New York has several closely watched House contests, and all three states have other races whose outcomes could rest on voter turnout.
“At this point, it looks like there are probably between 70 and 100 of our polling places still non-functional without power, but we’re hoping to have them up and running by Monday. The problem is you have to make a decision at some point whether you’re going to move the polling place somewhere else, which is a fairly drastic solution because it creates so much confusion,” Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill told WCBS 880.
Michael McDonald, a professor of public affairs at George Mason University in Virginia who studies turnout, said a calamitous weather event right before a presidential election was unprecedented. McDonald said that in such a tight presidential race any turnout diminished by Sandy could make a difference in the overall popular vote.
“It’s unlikely disruptions from Sandy would affect the outcome of the election within those states,” McDonald said. “But if those voters, who are mostly Democrats, end up being subtracted from the national popular vote, you’ll get a lower vote share for Obama than he would have received if those people had voted.”
With every state along Sandy’s destructive path using electronic voting machines, election officials were pressing local electric companies to make restoring power a priority to places that were to serve as polling places.
“We’ve provided lists of poll sites to local utilities, and some of the voting machines do have battery backup,” New York State Board of Elections spokesman Tom Connolly said. “We are also planning to get generators to polling sites, but it’s not like we have an unlimited supply of generators.”
Elected leaders across the states affected by Sandy were taking different approaches to the impending vote tallies.
In hard-hit New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg referred all voting-related questions to the city Board of Elections. But he said recovery crews were working hard to restore electricity to schools, many of which serve as polling places. Voting should proceed smoothly in those places, he said.
“There are some where there were transformers in the basement that were damaged — the Board of Elections will have to find alternative locations,” Bloomberg said at a news conference.
Elections spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez said officials were determining the condition of polling places around the five New York boroughs even as the storm stripped power from the agency’s headquarters, forcing workers into temporary office space.
“Our trucks are loaded and ready for delivery of all voting materials and equipment once we know that sites have not been damaged,” Vazquez said. Elections officials, she said, “will be working around the clock and through the weekend to make sure that all voting sites receive everything they need to be up and running on Election Day.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has refused to talk about voting plans at his storm briefings, focusing on rescue and recovery efforts instead.
“Right now I’m much more concerned about preventing any other loss of life, getting people to safe places, and then we’ll worry about the election. The election will take care of itself,” he said.
State officials planned to extend the deadline for mail-in ballots and to deploy military trucks to serve as polling places in some storm-battered communities.
Newark, is under a state of emergency. At least half its residents don’t have power and three people have died as a result of the storm. At a news conference Thursday, Mayor Cory Booker said he’s had preliminary conversations regarding Election Day but does not yet have a plan for getting people to the polls.
“I have a lot of faith in the power of this democracy, the resiliency of our communities and that when Election Day comes we will make a way for people to vote,” Booker said.
County election officials along New Jersey’s storm-battered Atlantic Coast were taking it upon themselves to assess the damage to polling places and determine contingency plans.
Michael Kennedy, the Democratic registrar for the board of elections in hard-hit Cape May County on the Atlantic Coast, said many polling places would have to be combined.
“It’s still a pretty big mess out there. Some of them are under water and out of power,” Kennedy said of the polling sites.
Kennedy said he was also concerned about having enough volunteers to staff the sites.
“A lot of our poll workers live on barrier islands and were relocated because of the storm,” he said.
In Connecticut, Gov. Dan Malloy signed an executive order extending the voter registration deadline until Thursday — it had been Oct. 30 — to accommodate people affected by the storm. Connecticut’s strict voting rules — the state does not have early voting, and residents can only request an absentee ballot if they are out of the area — added urgency to the task of preparing polling places.
“I don’t know what it’s going to do to voter turn-out. People are still very concerned with other things at the moment,” Merrill told WCBS 880.
Merrill was holding daily conference calls with some 260 local election officials to determine their needs, her spokesman, Av Harris, said.
“Could some polling places be moved? Yes. There are procedures in place, and people are volunteering to help out,” Harris said. “This is New England, people help their neighbors. That’s the best way to get through this.”