Voters cast ballots in the Northeast despite devastation from Sandy

2:38 PM, Nov 6, 2012   |    comments
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WESTBURY, N.Y. (USA TODAY) - On a quiet street lined with the occasional remains of a downed tree or branch, voters in quiet Westbury, Long Island, trickled into the beige stone one-story Westbury Water District Garage Tuesday morning to cast ballots.

Merely a week after Superstorm Sandy ravaged much of the East Coast, general election voting here appeared to be running smoothly with no wait at all.

"Piece of cake," said Westbury resident Matt Cahill, 49, whose life in the week since Hurricane Sandy has been anything but.

Westbury was so hard hit that Nassau County, N.Y., election officials had to move two polling places to the water district garage. Cahill and his family just got their power back Monday. Because of the cold, he and his wife sent their four children to stay with his mother in Garden City Park. The lawyer who normally commutes to Manhattan worked out of an office his firm operates in Jericho, Long Island.

That was not the story everywhere. 

Voters across the storm-ravaged East Coast left their unlit, unheated homes, walked past generators and fallen tree limbs and cast their votes. Many voted in polling places far from their voting districts under rules improvised by election officials to smooth the election process despite a storm that knocked out power to millions and flooded thousands of homes just a week ago.

At a school on Manhattan's East 23rd Street, some voters waited more than an hour to cast ballots, and two poll workers nearly came to blows with each other as they tried to handle the crowd.

"Things are a little hectic in the New York City area," where storm dislocations and recovery efforts were having an impact at polling places, said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo signed an executive order earlier in the week allowing voters in five hard-hit counties who were displaced by Sandy to cast a vote for statewide and national races anywhere in the state. "Whatever your (political) preference today, please vote. Your patience at the polling places is required, as it has been all week long."

In Belmar, N.J., one of the hardest-hit towns along the Jersey Shore, it is difficult to stay away from the polls.

At any moment, half the town, it seemed, was congregating at the municipal complex on Main Street. In addition to being the site of a consolidated polling place for the entire borough, it's also the epicenter of the local storm relief effort.

So in addition to casting a ballot, residents could charge their cellphone, get a hot meal, pick up clothes and groceries, register with FEMA and find out what is going on around town.

Anita L. Adams, 73, whose mobile home on Route 35 is still without power, left with a winter coat, a blanket, a roll of toilet paper, a can of beans, a bag of dog food - and the satisfaction of knowing she had performed her civic duty.

"All done," she said. "Now I'm ready to go home and make a big pot of hot soup."

Mike Ellis hasn't had power in his Montclair, N.J., home since the night of Oct. 29. And early Tuesday he was racing to catch a bus so that he could get to the Manhattan bank where he works for the first time in seven days. But first he had to vote.

"Despite what I'm going through, I realize how important this vote is,'' said Ellis. "I have nothing but bad feelings for Mitt Romney. I don't like him. I don't trust him. I think Obama is a man of integrity. ... Let him finish what he started.''

Just two blocks away from Ellis' polling place at a local church, a handful of streets remained in darkness. But the polling place had power, and the line of voters that at times stretched out the door moved relatively quickly, with voters waiting 15 to 20 minutes to get into the voting booth.

Lora Wegner, a school teacher who lives in West Orange, says she was without power for four days. Now her lights are on, but she knows many other people are still suffering and she worries that the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy could keep some away from the polls.

"Some people have nothing," Wegner said. "I dropped clothes off yesterday at the Red Cross. People are picking their grandparents' pictures off the lawn. Whether voting is important to them, I don't know.''

Election officials in New Jersey and New York moved dozens of polling places and made other accommodations for voters displaced by the storm.

In New Jersey, Secretary of State Kim Guadagno has allowed voters to cast provisional ballots in any county for statewide races, which include votes for president, the Senate and two statewide ballot questions, said her spokesman, Ernest Landante.

Election officials will count those ballots at the end of the day, after verifying the voter's registration, signature and that he or she cast only one vote in the election, Landante said.

The list of polling stations that needed to be relocated because of the storm dropped from 800 last week to less than 100 Monday and zero this morning, he said. The reasons vary. Some came off the list because utilities provided power to those locations. Others have been moved or combined with polling places in the same district or nearby, he said.

Roughly 60 polling places were relocated in New York City, most because of structural damage, power outages or both caused by Superstorm Sandy. The moves, combined with the city's first use of electronically scanned ballots for a presidential election, led to long lines and some short tempers.

Electrical generators brought in to power polling places in a few areas hard hit by the storm initially failed to operate, but were later fixed, Valerie Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the New York City Board of Elections, said shortly after 11 a.m. The board hired extra information clerks to help voters find the proper line for their election district, said Vazquez.

"We're getting calls from polling places around the city that the early turnout is high," said Vazquez. "We're asking people to have patience with us. Our goal is to ensure that everybody who wants to vote gets to vote."

In Connecticut, the storm caused election officials to move only two of the state's 773 polling places, said Av Harris, a spokesman for the Connecticut Secretary of the State. This morning, 9,426 customers of Connecticut's two electric companies remained out of power.

"The hurricane is an issue," said Harris. "Some roads are blocked, and it may affect voter turnout. But we're a lot better off than a week ago. We didn't get hit as hard as New Jersey."

In Hudson County, N.J., an already challenging election was getting bogged down by voters who are not eligible for special e-mail ballots requesting them anyway, Deputy Hudson County Clerk Janet Larwa told the Daily Record.

New Jersey is allowing voters displaced by Superstorm Sandy to vote by e-mail or fax as state residents living overseas and members of the military are able to do. But Larwa said she received 2,000 requests for e-mail ballots by noon, many from people who were not displaced.

At Hooper Avenue Elementary in Toms River, N.J., election clerk Chris Patterson was expecting voters from 10 election districts rather than four, as voters from ravaged barrier island towns such as Seaside Heights made their way inland to vote.

Patterson was expecting another 200 voters. The extra load is smaller than it might have been because Ocean County opened three emergency offices where people could vote early. Change is coming so quickly that even Patterson can't keep up with it all. With an embarrassed smile, he said he's not quite sure how the state's plans to accept ballots via fax and e-mail will work.

"To tell you the truth I'm not sure," he said. "Our office only received power yesterday."

Superstorm Sandy's impact will also be felt in residents' votes for local politicians, said Eddie Denny, a Staten Island resident of about 22 years.

Many voters' opinions of a candidate were affected by the politician's performance after the storm, Denny said. His house was in one of the hardest hit areas of Staten Island. He is now working on recovery efforts for his home, but thought taking time to vote was important because "I want my candidates to win," he said.

Alisa Andrew in Newtown, Conn., said women's rights and health care issues were the major reasons she voted. President Obama "definitely" deserves another term in office, the 48-year-old writer said.

"I was impressed with how Obama handled the disaster," said Andrew, who spent four days last week without power. "He seemed very sincere, and I like the way he and (Republican New Jersey Governor) Chris Christie came together to help the victims."

Keith Kelly, 49, an IT manager in Newtown, where some residents are still without power, says he had no problem getting to a local elementary school to vote, and the storm had no effect on his view of the presidential election. He says he was
impressed by Mitt Romney during the presidential debates, and it's time for someone new in the White House.

Doug Schwartz, director of the independent Quinnipiac University Poll, based in Hamden, Conn., says recent national polls appear to show a "post-Sandy bounce" for President Obama. The most recent Quinnipiac University Poll of Connecticut voters, released Oct. 24 before Hurricane Sandy struck, showed Obama winning the New England state with 55% of the vote, and Mitt Romney with 41% of the vote.

Mary Cassidy, a 25-year-old Staten Island resident, turned out to vote at the makeshift voting area at New York City's Public School 52 on Staten Island. The school got soaked with Sandy's floods, so today voters cast ballots in tents on the outdoor basketball court. Poll workers in puffy winter coats and gloves sipped warm beverages as they helped voters sign in. Cuomo's idea to let people vote anywhere is "brilliant," Cassidy said.

"I was going to come out hell or high water," Cassidy said. She is going through chemo for breast cancer and brought a book, her prescriptions, knitting and a small stool in case there was a wait, though she didn't need them. It took her less than 10 minutes to register and vote.

Some voters were putting off voting till later in the day because storm damage left them confused about where to vote or unable to reach a polling place in time.

Ronny Kapner of Old Westbury, N.Y., said Tuesday morning things are "a mess" in his community due to the storm and he did not have a chance to vote before heading into Manhattan on the Long Island Rail Road for his sales job. He's not sure where he's supposed to vote or if officials relocated his polling site because of the storm. He'll vote tonight after work, he said.

"I think the high school is open," said Kapner, 60. "I'll find out from my wife."

One thing is certain, he said: He'll vote "because the country is going to pieces."

Contributing: Laura Petrecca, Tim Mullaney, Charisse Jones of USA TODAY and Shannon Mullen for the Asbury Park Press



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