In New Jersey, polls taken to the people


Members of the Army National Guard fill out absentee voter ballots for the presidential election while temporarily stationed along the New Jersey coastline to help with Superstorm Sandy clean up. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Instead of trying to get people to the polls in this storm-battered place, officials here brought the polls to the people.

In Ocean County along the Atlantic coast, election officials drove a 38-foot white Winnebago — converted to a rolling polling place, a “VOTE HERE” banner was taped to its side — to emergency shelters to allow displaced residents to vote.

“This is a godsend,” said Marc St. James, 69, who has slept on a cot in the gym of the Pinelands Regional High School since his Long Beach Island home was damaged and residents were ordered off the barrier island.

As the polls opened in New Jersey, about 600,000 were still without electricity. Thousands had spent the night in emergency shelters.

Officials took unusual steps to try to make voting as easy as possible. Gov. Chris Christie (R) allowed anyone displaced by the storm to vote by e-mail or fax and to cast ballots at any precinct in the state.

The demand for electronic ballots overwhelmed many counties, and the state decided to extend deadlines Tuesday afternoon, said Ernest Landante, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who serves as the secretary of state.

Voters still had to request ­e-mail ballots by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Landante said, but the state is allowing counties to e-mail ballots to displaced voters until Nov. 9, the last day they can be returned. It was unknown how many people were trying to vote electronically, he said.

The storm hit Ocean County hard. Inside the Board of Elections office, workers had sat for days in darkened offices, processing mail-in ballots by flashlight, before the power was restored Sunday night.

On Tuesday, volunteers fielded phone calls and stood by the fax machine and computer terminals, grabbing ballot requests from displaced voters and answering a flood of questions: Where can I vote? Can I get an absentee ballot? How do I vote by e-mail?

“I been here 25 years, and I’ve never seen it like this,” said a frazzled clerk who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The presidential elections are always bad, but this is unbelievable.”

Ocean County, a Republican stronghold of 338,000 registered voters, includes Long Beach Island, a skinny strip that runs parallel to the coast. Residents there were allowed to return to their homes for only a few hours to grab belongings; the main road had been destroyed and gas lines were broken, officials said.

“It’s like a war zone down there,” Christie told reporters Tuesday.

Half of the county’s 229 polling places were inoperable because of storm damage, Board of Elections Chairman George Gilmore said, and 25 sites were powered with portable generators, he said.

“We were scrambling, figuring out what to do,” Gilmore said. “We heard about this bus, and we grabbed it.”

Aboard the Winnebago, Nick Policastro, 20, cast his first-ever vote. His mother, Lisa Grabowski, 51, had made a flurry of phone calls, trying to find a place to vote, before it arrived at the high school.

The converted camper, rented for $25,000 from a North Carolina company, holds 15 voting stations with privacy screens and counters that fold down from the wall. Voters climbed the stairs or used a lift.

“I voted every time since I was 21 and I wasn’t going to miss this,” said Ruth Ann Murray, 75, who rolled up to the truck in her wheelchair. Her Beach Haven home filled with three feet of water during the storm.

“I’m down to my last cigarette,” said Murray, squinting through purple-framed eyeglasses. “Now that’s a disaster. You don’t have a cigarette, do you?”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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