By email or in a tent: a scramble to get Sandy victims to vote

NEW YORK Sun Nov 4, 2012 8:47am IST

People take part in early voting in Columbus, Ohio October 30, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

People take part in early voting in Columbus, Ohio October 30, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Jersey is allowing voters displaced by superstorm Sandy to vote by email, while some voters in New York could be casting their ballots in tents in an 11th-hour scramble to ensure voting in Tuesday's elections.

With power still out for more than a million homes and businesses and scores of polling stations rendered useless by a record surge of seawater in New York and New Jersey, authorities face unprecedented challenges in pulling off Election Day.

Sandy, one of the most damaging storms to hit the United States, hammered the Northeast coast on Monday with 80 mile-per-hour (130-kph) winds while walls of water overran oceanside communities, killing at least 110.

The post-storm chaos in the region has overshadowed the final days of campaigning, making voting an afterthought for many, even with President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney locked in a tight race.

"I'm not thinking about the election too much right now," said Frank Carrol, 59, a retired New York City transit worker who lives in the hard-hit borough of Staten Island. He planned to vote, but did not know if his local polling station would even be open. "We'll stop by and see what happens," Carrol said.

Lower voter turnout probably won't affect the outcome of the election since the two states are considered safely Democratic and should go into Obama's column in the Electoral College. But it may reduce his popular vote tally.

In New Jersey, authorities took the uncommon step of declaring that any voter displaced from their home by Sandy would be designated an overseas voter, allowing them to submit an absentee vote by fax or email.

According to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, about a dozen U.S. states allow absentee ballots - mainly from overseas voters - to be returned by email, while several more have the ability to allow this in certain emergency situations.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also said he had ordered county clerks to open their offices this weekend to allow early voting for storm-affected residents and that paper ballots would be available on Tuesday at polling stations still without power.

"Time on your hands? Tired of cleaning stuff up? Go there in person, you'll get a ballot, you vote and hand it in and you're done," Christie, a Republican, said from the town of Little Ferry. "There's no reason why anybody shouldn't vote. We're going to have a full, fair, transparent, open voting process."

NEW YORK FRUSTRATION

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed irritation at trying to help the Board of Elections in the City of New York.

"We (in City Hall) don't run the Board of Elections which is the frustrating thing and their responsibility is to make sure that everybody on Tuesday can exercise the franchise which is the essence of what American democracy is all about," he said.

"They have known for six days now that we were going to have some problems and hopefully they had backup plans anyway ... We have offered help, but last time I checked still hadn't gotten lists of where they really need help," he said.

The city's Board of Elections was not immediately available for comment, but on its website said that its Manhattan and Staten Island offices had been closed since the storm on Monday and its central phone bank was not functioning properly.

"Hurricane Sandy and the loss of electricity have made our task more challenging," the board said. "The processing of absentee ballot applications has been delayed by the storm but our staff are working diligently."

An obscure New York state law allows counties to seek a second day of polling if voter turnout was less than 25 percent as a "direct consequence" of a disaster. A second day of voting must then happen within 20 days of the original poll date.

John Miksad, Con Edison's senior vice president of Electric Operations, said about 70 polling stations out of 1,250 in New York City and neighboring Westchester County - the area served by the power and gas company - were still without electricity.

"We are looking to get those restored before Election Day," he told reporters, adding that most of those were in Westchester County where overhead power lines had been downed by trees.

"We have talked to the city and Westchester County. They do have the capability to make some alternate plans ... they talked about bringing tents out there for election day, moving people to other voting locations," he said.

In Connecticut it was likely that only a few polling stations would need to be relocated on Tuesday, a spokesman for the Connecticut Secretary of the State said.

(Additional reporting by Dan Burns and Joseph Ax; Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)

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