States scramble to help displaced residents vote
TOMS RIVER, N.J. (AP) — One storm-battered New Jersey county was delivering ballots to emergency shelters Monday while New York City was lining up shuttle buses to ferry people in hard-hit coastal areas to the polls. With the presidential election looming just a week after Superstorm Sandy's devastation, authorities were scrambling to make voting as manageable as possible while election watchers warned that confusion over balloting could disenfranchise residents.
Election officials in both New Jersey and New York were guardedly optimistic that power would be restored and most polling places would be open in all but the worst-hit areas for Tuesday's election. In West Virginia, officials relocated a handful of polling precincts because of continuing power outages from Superstorm Sandy.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Monday allowing residents to cast a so-called "affidavit," or provisional ballot, at any polling place in the state for president and statewide office holders, an opportunity New Jersey was extending to voters as well.
"Compared to what we have had to deal with in the past week, this will be a walk in the park when it comes to voting," Cuomo said.
Affidavit or provisional ballots are counted after elected officials confirm a voter's eligibility.
Authorities were also sensitive to concerns about potential disenfranchisement and were taking steps to ensure voters were kept informed of continued problems or changes to their voting locations.
Ernie Landante, a spokesman for the New Jersey Division of Elections, said fewer than 100 polling places around the state were without power compared to 800 just days ago, and that the state has abandoned its earlier plan to use military trucks as makeshift polling places. Most voters will be able to cast ballots at their regular polling sites, he said.
But Landante also said the state had taken extra steps to make sure people displaced by Sandy's destruction would be able to vote, like allowing "authorized messengers" to pick up as many mail-in ballots as they request for people in shelters or away from their homes.
"We are doing everything we can in this extraordinary situation not to disenfranchise voters displaced by Sandy. Their voices and their votes will be heard no differently than anyone else's," Landante said.
But authorities abruptly switched gears on an additional directive New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's office announced allowing displaced New Jersey residents to vote through email and fax.
The directive allowed voters to request and file a ballot electronically. But under pressure from voting rights advocates, officials said those voters would have to submit a paper ballot along with the electronic filing — a rule the state's military personnel and residents living overseas are required to follow as well.
Larry Norden, a voting-rights advocate at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, said the email and fax option wouldn't be viable for voters still without power.
"My biggest concern about all this is confusion. These places need to take statewide action to make sure people who have been displaced know there is some way they can vote," Norden said.
Some regions most affected by Sandy were seeking creative ways to help residents cast their ballot.
In Ocean County along the New Jersey coast, officials hired a converted camper to bring mail-in ballots to shelters in Toms River, Pemberton and Burlington Township. Some 75 people in Toms River alone took advantage of the service on Monday, officials said. The camper will either continue to serve the shelters or be converted into an emergency voting precinct on Tuesday.
"It's great. This is one less thing I have to think about," said Josephine DeFeis, who fled her home in storm-devastated Seaside Heights and cast her ballot in the camper on Monday.
In New York City, authorities planned to run shuttle buses every 15 minutes Tuesday in storm-slammed areas to bring voters to the polls.
Elections Commissioner J.C. Polanco said the buses would service parts of Staten Island, the Rockaways and Breezy Point in Queens, and the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.
"An election on a normal day in New York is difficult as it is. Think of how difficult it is after a hurricane," Polanco said.
Just 60 of the city's 1350 polling sites were unusable and residents who vote in those places would be directed elsewhere, Polanco said. He said if a voter relocated to another polling site didn't show up on the list of people eligible to vote, he or she would be given a provisional ballot.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged city residents to check the Board of Elections website to find out about polling changes.
"Vote. It is our most precious right. It is the one that guarantees all our other rights as Americans. It is the essence of being a citizen," Bloomberg said.
In a city of 4.6 million voters, bumps were inevitable.
In Brooklyn, workers were still pumping water out of Middle School 211, which was supposed to serve as a polling place. The neighborhood's new polling site, Canarsie High School, is a few blocks away, but there were no signs posted at either school alerting voters to the change.
Staten Island resident Paul Hoppe said he probably wouldn't vote. His home, a block from the beach, was uninhabitable, his family was displaced and their possessions were ruined.
"We've got too many concerns that go beyond the national scene," Hoppe said.
Five counties in West Virginia were moving or combining 14 precincts into a total of 10 temporary locations. Lewis, Randolph and Tucker counties are each relocating one precinct. Upshur County is moving four while Preston is relocating seven.
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said officials will post notices on the closed precincts, and are spreading details through the media and on her office's website. West Virginia's elections chief, Tennant warned voters not to believe phone calls offering new precinct locations.
"Those are false calls," Tennant said, citing complaints alleging such ploys during prior elections. "Call your county clerk to double-check, or the secretary of state's office."
Fouhy reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in New Jersey and Karen Matthews, Michael Hill, Jennifer Peltz and Bebeto Matthews in New York, and Lawrence Messina in Charleston, W.Va., contributed to this report.