Voters in NY, NJ not deterred by storm's effects

AP News

11/6/2012 1:30:58 PM - AP News

POINT PLEASANT, N.J. (AP) — Election Day turnout was heavy Tuesday in several storm-ravaged areas in New York and New Jersey, a welcome change from crisis to catharsis for many who saw exercising their civic duty as a sign of normalcy amid lingering devastation.

Lines were long in Point Pleasant, N.J., where residents from the Jersey Shore communities of Point Pleasant Beach and Mantoloking had to cast their ballots due to damage in their hometowns.

Many there still have no power eight days after Sandy pummeled the shore.

Sarah Brewster of Long Beach, N.Y., was shaken when she entered a school to vote. She noticed that the clocks were all stopped at 7:27. That's the time one week ago Monday when everyone in her community had lost power. Tears streamed down her face as she emerged from the school cafeteria. Brewster, who works at a nonprofit, said voting is "part of our civic responsibility in the midst of all this crisis."

Retired customer service agent Joan Andrews, who fled her trailer in Moonachie by boat a week ago, said, "I always have to vote, especially now. Many friends of the 68-year-old woman were too overwhelmed to vote, but Andrews said she'd encouraged them to take the time.

"Oh my God, I have been so anxious about being able to vote," said Annette DeBona of Point Pleasant Beach. "It's such a relief to be able to do it. This is the happiest vote I ever cast in my life."

The 73-year-old restaurant worker was so worried about not being able to vote that she called the police department several days in advance, as well as her church, to make absolutely sure she knew where to go and when. She was one of the first to cast a ballot in her neighboring town, choosing Mitt Romney.

"I truly believe Romney is an honest, caring man," she said. "He will lift us out of our spiritual and mental depression and help us believe again."

Renee Kearney of Point Pleasant Beach said she felt additional responsibility to cast a ballot this Election Day.

"It feels extra important today because you have the opportunity to influence the state of things right now, which is a disaster," the 41-year-old project manager for an information technology company said.

She had planned all along to vote for Obama, but said her resolve was strengthened by his response to Superstorm Sandy.

"I was extremely impressed by his response to the storm," she said. "For people who were not so certain about him, I think this may have sealed the deal."

Authorities in New York and New Jersey were set to drive some displaced voters to their polling sites and direct others to cast ballots elsewhere as residents insisted the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy wouldn't stop them from participating in Tuesday's election.

"Nothing is more important than voting. What is the connection between voting and this?" said Alex Shamis, a resident of hard-hit Staten Island, gesturing to his mud-filled home.

The efforts put a premium on creativity. At a public school in Staten Island's Midland Beach, flares were set up at an entrance to provide light, and voting machines were retrieved from inside the school and moved into tents where voters braved 29-degree temperatures as they lined up.

Voters arriving at another Staten Island school found no official signage referring them to a new polling place, but those who arrived on foot were taken to the correct location by a shuttle bus, officials said. A hand-written sign eventually was placed at the school's driveway.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was accompanied by his youngest daughter when he voted soon after learning that power had been restored to his home.

"I'm amazed at how resilient people are. I think there's tremendous interest in the election here and nationwide," Christie said.

Election officials in both states were guardedly optimistic that power would be restored and most polling places would be open in all but the worst-hit areas. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Monday allowing residents to cast a so-called affidavit, or provisional ballot, at any polling place in the state for president and statewide office holders, an opportunity New Jersey was extending to voters as well.

"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.

Provisional ballots are counted after elected officials confirm a voter's eligibility.

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 with 800 just days ago, and said 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.

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.

But authorities abruptly switched gears on an additional directive that Christie's office announced allowing displaced New Jersey residents to vote through email and fax.

The directive allowed voters to request and file a ballot electronically. But under pressure from voting rights advocates, officials said those voters would have to submit a paper ballot along with the electronic filing — a rule the state's military personnel and residents living overseas are required to follow as well. Initially, the state was going to waive the paper ballot requirement.

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 Monday, officials said.

"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 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.

Just 60 of the city's 1,350 polling sites were unusable and residents who vote in those places would be directed elsewhere, Polanco 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.

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.

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Fouhy reported from Washington and Parry reported from Point Pleasant, N.J. Associated Press writers A.J. Connelly, Seth Wenig on Staten Island, Geoff Mulvihill and Bruce Shipkowski in New Jersey and Karen Matthews, Jennifer Peltz and Bebeto Matthews in New York contributed to this report.