States scramble to help displaced residents vote

Ballots were being delivered to emergency shelters, buses were transporting people to polls and voting rules were relaxed in both New York and New Jersey to allow residents affected by Sandy to cast their votes at any polling station.

TOMS RIVER, N.J. — 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 any shortcuts could compromise the integrity of the balloting.

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.

Voters will not, however, be able to vote in so-called “down-ballot” local elections, if they are voting in a district other than the one in which they are registered.

“We have more than 500 municipalities, and that means we would have to have 500 different ballots at each voting location,” said Ernie Lines, spokesman for New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. “It’s just not possible.”

In New York state, voters living away from their home will be able to vote for president and U.S. Senate from any polling place in the state. Voters will be able to vote for candidates for Congress, state Senate and Assembly only if they are voting in the same district where they live, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

"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.

Cuomo’s order will permit voters displaced by Sandy to sign a sworn statement that they're legally registered to vote in the presidential and state races.

That could play a role in several tight state Senate races in Queens, Long Island and in the Hudson Valley. The races that are close, according to recent polls and to the campaigns, could result in deciding majority control of the Senate. Republicans currently have a 33-29 majority, having wrested control from Democrats two years ago.

But 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.

New Jersey has also set up a text messaging system for people who don’t know where their polling place is. Residents are being instructed to text the word “WHERE” to 877-877 for instructions on where they can vote.

But an additional directive announced by Gov. Chris Christie allowing displaced New Jersey residents to vote through email and fax has drawn criticism from some voting-rights advocates who warned of potential fraud.

Under the directive, voters will be allowed to request and file a ballot electronically. The state's military personnel and residents living overseas also vote that way, but they are also required to file paper ballots — a rule that election watchers said must be applied to voters displaced by the storm as well.

Penny Venetis, a professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, said she and other advocates planned to file a lawsuit asking a judge for clarification that if the state does not adopt the paper ballot rule.

"We think it's great that the governor's office is thinking of ways that people are displaced can vote," Venetis said, but added that safeguards must be put in place to protect against fraud.

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," Polcano said

Just 60 of the city's 1350 polling sites were unusable and residents who vote in those places would be directed elsewhere, Polcano 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.

In a city of 4.6 million voters, bumps were inevitable.

In Brooklyn, workers Monday 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.

More information:

New Jersey Division of Elections

New York State Board of Elections

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Beth Fouhy reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in New Jersey and Karen Matthews, Michael Hill, Michael Gormley and Bebeto Matthews in New York contributed to this report.