Sandy storm exposes need for voting contingency plans
January 9, 2013 | By Malia Rulon Herman | Gannett Washington Bureau | Link to article
Hurricane Sandy threw election efforts in New York and New Jersey into disarray, but it wasn't quite the worst-case scenario.
WASHINGTON - Holding a presidential election one week after a major storm has destroyed homes and knocked out power to much of your state may seem like a worst-case scenario, but the problems New Jersey experienced after Superstorm Sandy could have been much worse, a state elections official said Wednesday.
"If the storm was a week later, we would not have been able to have a presidential election in New Jersey and parts of New York," Robert Giles, director of New Jersey's Division of Elections, said at a hearing before the Election Assistance Commission. "There's nothing in place to address that. It's always been, 'Well, we'll deal with it if it happens.' Well, it almost did."
Sandy struck New Jersey and New York on Monday, Oct. 29. That was the week before the Nov. 6 election, although many people in affected areas were given additional time to e-mail or fax in their ballots.
Giles and other elections officials taking part in Wednesday's hearing called for contingency plans in the event of another disaster.
Pamela Green Perkins, administrative manager at the New York City Board of Elections, said a major challenge after Sandy was finding out which kind of generators each polling place needed.
"We needed to know the number of kilowatts and the voltage," she said. "We had none of that information."
Dawn Sandow, deputy executive director of the NYC Board of Elections, said she ran into bureaucratic red tape when she tried to get permission in advance of the storm to move hundreds of voting machines from elections offices in Clifton, in an evacuation area, to the Staten Island Armory.
"You just have to be persistent," she said, describing how the authorization came through 20 minutes after she ordered trucks to begin the transfer.
Giles of New Jersey said the big challenge for his state was preparing for the unknown. Even with advance warning systems in place, it wasn't clear where and when the storm would make landfall or how much destruction it would cause.
The Friday before the storm, he said, elections officials from several Northeastern states spoke by conference call with elections officials in Mississippi and Louisiana to get tips on preparing contingency plans.
That same day, his office sent a list of polling places to local utility companies so they could be put on a priority list when it came time to restore power.
After the storm, New Jersey announced directives aimed at making voting easier for victims of the storm.
It extended the deadline for residents to request mail-in ballots, extended early-voting hours, relaxed the limit on the number of ballots that can be picked up and delivered to others, and lifted the requirement that poll workers live in the county where they work.
When it appeared those measures wouldn't be enough, the state announced that displaced residents would be able to vote by e-mail or fax. It then extended the deadline for submitting ballots one of those ways, and opened up provisional voting across the state.
"We didn't have to create any new laws, we just expanded upon what we already had, relaxed them a little bit," Giles said.
State officials don't know how many voters voted by e-mail or fax, he said. But allowing those options helped the state's turnout, estimated at 67%, he said. That's a record low. The previous record low was 70% in the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Other states are paying close attention, said Jennie Drage Bowser, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Bowser said more states are likely to consider legislation that includes election contingency plans.
Michael Alvarez, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, said Sandy - just like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 - illustrates the need for such plans. He called for more research into what such contingency plans should include.
There also needs to be a plan to protect voting rights of first responders who help in disasters, said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Arnwine, whose organization led a national Election Protection effort, said the group's Election Day hotline received calls from first responders in New Jersey and New York who couldn't vote back home.
Giles said first responders were encouraged to cast provisional ballots in New Jersey and told their ballots would be sent to their home states. It's unclear if they were counted, however.
"The response was definitely less than desirable,'' Arnwine said.