With an estimated cost in the neighborhood of $50 billion dollars in damage, Hurricane Sandy ravaged much of the tri-state area causing catastrophic damage. New Jersey got the worst of the violent storm and its damning effects. Flooding, fires, power outages and gas shortages have changed life considerably for many residents in the Garden State. Routine activities are no longer routine. Elected officials and residents have been forced to rethink various aspects of everyday life. With Election Day fast approaching in the wake of a tragedy of titanic proportion, the time for accommodation and ingenuity arrived by necessity. Races for New Jersey’s 14 electoral votes, 13 congressional seats, a senate seat and local elections, forced flexibility and adaptation to make sure residents are able to vote and have their voices heard.
In accordance with federal law 3 U.S.C. § 1 the state has repeatedly stated its commitment to holding a “fair, open, transparent and accessible election.” Kim Guadagno, the Lieutenant Governor and the State’s Chief Election Officer issued various directives easing restrictions on voting in the aftermath of Sandy. Under the authority vested in the Lieutenant Governor by Executive Order 104, Kim Guadagno and other executive heads of agencies have the “authority to promulgate rules to waive, suspend, or modify any existing rule for the enforcement of which would be detrimental to the public welfare during the emergency.”
The State made three substantial changes to ease the burden on voters in this time of stress. First, any displaced voter is considered an “overseas voter.” That voter can then submit a mail-in ballot application and the County Clerk can electronically send a ballot and a waiver of secrecy form by email or fax. Second, in order to expand the ability of displaced voters to vote, a displaced voter may vote by provisional ballot at any polling place in the State. The appropriate county Board “must count the votes of all registered voters for the offices of President and United States Senator and on any statewide question.” Finally, there are many local initiatives the State is promoting to secure notice and communication such as county websites that provide updated polling place assignments and locations, PSA announcements and newspaper notifications at a minimum. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also, ordered early voting sites to offer extended hours through the weekend to encourage voters to make it to the polls.
There are also many local endeavors that are accompanying the statewide initiatives. In Bergen County, 327 voting locations have been consolidated to make up for those areas that still don’t have power. In Morris County, instead of voting at smaller facilities, residents will be directed to larger buildings designated by the municipal clerks of their towns, which are equipped to handle more people and are adequately powered. Counties such as Middlesex plan to employ the use of paper ballots where there is no power. Additionally, Statewide Democratic Chairman John Wisniewski said Democrats have a well-rehearsed get-out-the-vote campaign and party officials are considering renting more buses and also shifting resources from less-damaged counties to those hit harder by the storm.
All of these measures are being promoted to ensure the franchise for New Jersey voters. When questioned about the fallibility of the system and the various last minute changes Rick Hasen of the Election Law Blog said, “There’s all kinds of problems with it.” “The question is, do you use a fallible system like email voting or you disenfranchise [these displaced voters]. Given that choice, it seems like this is the right thing to do,” Hasen continued.
Overall, Hurricane Sandy has presented uncharted territory with regard to elections in the Northeast. In some sense it seems like the lack of preparedness or ability to grasp the magnitude of the hurricane has caused elected officials to look past their normal avenues of voting and try voting techniques that are outside the box. While states across the country are rolling back voting opportunities and strengthening voting laws New Jersey’s approach is considerably different. Maybe it’s because the polls in New Jersey are not particularly close in the presidential race or the senate race. Maybe it’s because the storm has caused people to look past their normal partisan quarreling and see the bigger picture. Either way, the voting taking place on Tuesday in New Jersey will look different from the voting in other states and may be a test case for how to expand the franchise and break down barriers to voting.