Sandy Forces N.J. To Change Voting Rules

fromWNYC

In New Jersey, still reeling in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, local officials are preparing for an Election Day riddled with struggles and complications. The state has changed its voting rules to try to accommodate voters displaced by the storm.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Eleven years ago, September 11, 2001, was a voting day in New York City, a primary election for mayor. After that day's attacks the vote was postponed. But in the end, New Yorkers held the November general election on time, voting in Michael Bloomberg, who remains in office today.

MONTAGNE: Today, New York and New Jersey are working to hold another November election on time, despite the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. New York has altered some voting rules. And so has New Jersey, where hundreds of thousands of people are spending Election Day without electric power.

INSKEEP: Many are still out of their homes but the state wants them to get in to polling places, and that's where we begin our coverage with Anna Sale of member station WNYC.

ANNA SALE, BYLINE: Voters crowded the hallways at the Essex County courthouse in Newark on Monday, anxious to cast their ballots before Election Day. Newark resident Majile McCray already voted early, but she sat on a bench with her daughter and a friend as they waited.

MAJILE MCCRAY: It's stressful to vote this year and a lot of people are turning around.

SALE: She'd never voted early before, but she heard on Facebook she could come here, and she was worried about waiting until Election Day.

MCCRAY: There's no electricity in my polling area. So at the school that I would vote at normally, there's definitely no electricity there.

SALE: The state ordered county offices to stay open in the days leading up to the election to accommodate these early voters. The question now is whether the state has made it accommodating enough. Some voters have left their voting districts in search of heat and power. Others in storm-ravaged communities are still struggling to secure basic food and shelter.

Standing just a few yards from New Jersey Guardsmen distributing water this weekend, Union Beach Mayor Paul Smith said no one in his town had asked him about the election.

MAYOR PAUL SMITH: I'm hoping they turn out Tuesday, but you know, I'm not going to pressure them at this point. They've got too on their minds, you know. They lost their homes and there's a lot of work to do.

SALE: New Jersey is permitting displaced voters to apply for ballots by fax or email. Once their signature is verified, they can submit a ballot as an attachment to a return email. Authorities say this is an expansion of the way absentee military votes are handled.

Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin said the response has been overwhelming in Newark.

CHRIS DURKIN: We're inundated with emails and faxes. We haven't really stopped to count.

SALE: Of course that fix takes an Internet connection, not to mention a fax machine or scanner to send the ballot back. Voters will also be allowed to cast provisional ballots anywhere in the state if they can't get to their local polling place. But finding those polls could be an added challenge at a time when gas is in short supply. On Monday, officials were still working to find alternate sites for more than 300 compromised polling locations.

Signs and poll workers will be at any relocated polls, and Governor Chris Christie told voters they could also use a new text message prompt. Text the word where to the number 877-877.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: It will immediately text message back to you your polling place. So at least that's the theory. So we're going to see. But that's what they tell me is going to happen.

SALE: That's just one theory that will be tested today. The final turnout numbers will show whether they were winning ones.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Sale in South Orange, New Jersey.

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