Politics

11.03.12

Scramble Ahead of Election Day in Areas Hardest Hit by Sandy

In areas ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, voters will still need to choose a president Nov. 6. Ben Jacobs reports on what state officials in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are doing to ensure turnout—and how the races will be affected.

Unlike baseball, there can be no rain delay for Election Day. So while Hurricane Sandy left a trail of devastation, flooding, and power outages in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, residents will still have to vote for president on Tuesday.

The date of the election—the Tuesday after the first Monday in November—has been set by congressional statute since 1845 and does not contain a hurricane exception. Neither the Civil War nor two World Wars budged it. Now the challenge for the hardest-hit jurisdictions is to ensure that all affected get to cast their ballot.

The biggest obstacle in many areas is widespread power outages. New York is preparing to gather generators for those polling places without electricity, said John Conklin, spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections. Voters will cast paper ballots, which the state uses, and deposit them into locked ballot boxes. Instead of being scanned at polling places, the ballots will be taken to a central location and tabulated there. Conklin said he doesn’t think the change will have a significant impact on the voting process, although he did warn that it could take it longer than normal for the state to release election results.

The spokesman declined to speculate about how many polling places might have to be moved for Tuesday. He said he felt confident about even hard-hit areas such as Staten Island, which he described as being “in pretty good shape.” Local authorities in the borough were able to contact 90 percent of their polling locations by Friday afternoon and reported that well over half were undamaged and had electricity, Conklin added.

Connecticut is in a similar situation to New York, though its damage is far more concentrated, along the Long Island Sound. Av Harris, a spokesman for the Connecticut secretary of state, said he thought Election Day would go smoothly. He said the state’s ballot scanners were battery powered, in case of continued electrical failure.

Harris pointed to a similar crisis last year, in the aftermath of a late-October blizzard that also caused widespread blackouts, and said Connecticut was able to carry out its municipal elections with only minor hiccups. Although he acknowledged that some polling places would likely have to be moved before Nov. 6, he said he thought it would only be handful. Since Thursday, he noted, the number of polling places without electricity had declined to 90 from 150, and the number would continue to fall over the weekend.

Some pockets of New Jersey may face more trouble, however. In Hoboken, which was hit hard by Sandy, the voting machines were delivered to polling places before the storm. The result, said Hudson County Clerk Barbara Netchert, was that many of the machines are damaged, and paper ballots may have to be used on Election Day. New Jersey is already planning to set up mobile polling places, but no firm numbers have been set.

Although none of the jurisdictions that suffered the worst of the storm—New York City and the surrounding areas on Long Island, Westchester County, northern New Jersey, and southwest Connecticut—will decide the presidential election, Sandy will have a significant electoral impact, potentially affecting important contests for Congress, state, and local offices.

Insiders pointed to two congressional races in particular that will be altered by the storm. In New York’s 1st Congressional District, on the eastern tip of Long Island, longtime Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop is facing a tough challenge from Republican Randy Altschuler. And in the newly renumbered 11th Congressional District, made up of Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, scandal-plagued first-term Republican Michael Grimm is in a competitive race against Democrat Mark Murphy.

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Staten Island residents stand in line for fuel at a gas station on November 2, 2012 in the Staten Island borough of New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images)
In Hoboken, which was hit hard by Sandy, the voting machines were delivered to polling places before the storm, and now many are damaged.

In both races, the impact of the storm is likely to hurt the incumbents. On Long Island, the South Shore of Suffolk County, the more Democratic part of Bishop’s district, was hit far harder than the North Shore. The same pattern holds in Grimm’s district, but the South Shore of Staten Island, which bore the brunt of the storm, is the Republican-leaning area.

To be fair, such political concerns are likely not at the forefront of people’s minds. Jimmy Oddo of Staten Island, the Republican minority leader in the New York City Council, brushed aside political questions in an interview with The Daily Beast. He said he was more concerned about the devastation in his borough, where streets were still flooded with three feet of water, residents of entire neighborhoods were in shelters, and gas lines stretched endlessly.