Victims of Hurricane Sandy Struggle to Vote on Election Day

Casting a ballot Tuesday will be a challenge for those hardest hit by the storm. Caitlin Dickson reports.

Paul J. Richards, AFP / Getty Images

In anticipation of the 2012 election, the Rockaway Youth Task Force proudly registered about 350 18- to 24-year-olds from the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens. But Milan Taylor, the group’s 23-year-old founder and president, doubts any of those newly registered voters will cast a ballot Tuesday. For those entering their second week stranded in the devastated Rockaways without heat or electricity, figuring out where the polling stations have been relocated to isn’t at the top of any to-do list.

“We’re trying to convince people to get out and vote. We’ve printed out fliers with the new poll sites,” Taylor said. “But in reality, if you’re trying to figure out how to keep your family warm, voting might be the least of your priorities.”

Among the buildings left uninhabitable in Hurricane Sandy’s wake are would-be polling stations, particularly in the hardest-hit areas in New Jersey, Staten Island, and the Rockaways. While New Jersey’s lieutenant governor announced Monday that voters could email ballots, the New York City Board of Elections is sticking with the traditional paper method and simply redirecting people to new polling places via a constantly updating list on its website. Gov. Andrew Cuomo also said late Monday that his state’s displaced voters would be allowed to cast ballots in any New York polling place.

Of the hundreds of regular polling locations throughout New York City’s five boroughs, only 60 will be up and running Tuesday, as of the DOE’s latest update.

But the DOE’s website is of little use to people without power.

That’s why groups like the League of Women Voters spent all day Monday fielding calls from people unable to get online or even get through to the DOE’s busy phone lines to find out where their stations were moved to or if they are eligible for a shuttle ride. “We are available for voters who don’t have Internet or power,” said the league’s New York City president, Ashton Stewart. “Our people power is minimal, but we’ve been keeping our four phone lines engaged all day, just letting people know where their nearest poll site is.”

Stewart said he isn’t sure how many people will end up unable to vote Tuesday. But from the number of calls he’s taken from people who haven’t received their absentee ballots, in addition to all the polling stations that will be closed, he said he’s anticipating the number of disenfranchised could be high.

He’s also expecting a long counting process and potential litigation if any of the races end up being a close call, he said.

“I’m remaining optimistic. I’m thinking communities will pull together,” he said. “The Board of Elections is working to get people to poll sites with shuttles. Based on the calls we’ve received, people really do want to vote.”

Donovan Richards, chief of staff to New York City Councilman James Sanders, echoed that statement. Sanders’s constituency, which includes much of the Rockaways, considers this election very important, Richards said: “They’re willing, even through Sandy, to get to the polls to pencil in Obama. If [Mitt] Romney wins, it will really hurt our district. We have a lot of public housing. We can’t afford to be disenfranchised.”

Richards estimated that about 2,000 people from Rockaway’s East End—elderly people and others without power and heat—are in shelters. Of Sanders’s 160,000-person district, Richards predicted that 50 to 60 percent won’t vote Tuesday, which “is disheartening” after the surge in voter participation within the community in 2008. “Lines were wrapped around the block,” he said. “We won’t see that in this election.”

Richards and the Sanders staff, Rockaway residents themselves, are also victims of Sandy. “We have no electricity, no phone lines. We are using the power of social media, sending emails that some people are getting,” he said. “But we’re not going to reach everybody. It’s impossible.”

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The city government is to blame, Richards said. “The Board of Elections gets an ‘F’ in communication. The Rockaways have certainly been abandoned,” he said. “The communication between government agencies in this crisis is no different from Katrina.”

While Richards said he hopes that three polling sites open to the Rockaways will be able to accommodate voters from the 15 to 20 that are out of commission, Sanders’s office is prepared to go to the Department of Justice and ask for a recall if turnout is dramatically reduced from 2008.

Carmencita Acosta is a registered nurse who has lived in the Belle Harbor area of the Rockaways since 1980. She and her roommate have been staying with friends in Valley Stream since the power and heat went out at their house the night Sandy hit. When she was leaving work Monday evening, Acosta and her co-workers—whom she’d volunteered to carpool with—lamented that they probably wouldn’t be able to vote the next day. “We were laughing because there is absolutely nothing in Rockaway right now,” Acosta said. “But when we were on our way home, we heard on the radio that Governor Cuomo said we can vote anywhere. When I get home I’m going to look online for schools in Valley Stream where I can vote. I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”

For others, though, Cuomo’s executive order makes little difference. “At the end of the day, people can’t travel up and down the [Rockaway] Peninsula,” Taylor pointed out, referring to the gas shortages that are still plaguing most parts of the city. “We’re stranded where we are.”

Even Taylor, who has spent the past two years working to engage his peers, doesn’t know if he’ll vote Tuesday. “Honestly, I still haven’t sat down and figured out where my poll site is, but if it’s somewhere outside the Rockaway Peninsula, I can’t get there. I don’t have gas. I don’t think anybody does at this point,” he said. “So I can’t vote. As much as I’d love to, it’s simply impossible if it’s outside the peninsula.”