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N.Y., N.J. Scramble To Ensure Voting Is Possible


Along with other post-Hurricane Sandy reconstruction, New York and New Jersey are trying to reassemble their election preparations. The storm affected hundreds of polling stations. Neither of these reliably Democratic states was poised to decide the presidential election, but public officials are still scrambling to make voting possible for millions of people in the evacuation zones. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The office of the Board of Elections for Manhattan is on the West Side, about 30 blocks south of the nearest functioning traffic light on the island. Like most of the neighborhood, the government building is dark. The only workers in sight were taking down some scaffolding battered by the storm.

LEE SULLIVAN: The water here on Houston came to Greenwich Street. You could see the, you know, old scrungy bits of cardboard.

LAWRENCE: Lee Sullivan works as an estimator for a construction company across the street. She walks to the office most days. She was also planning to walk to the polls on Tuesday.

SULLIVAN: I vote at the Westbeth location, which was flooded. That building was completely flooded, their basement.

LAWRENCE: Sullivan says she knows about construction, and that polling station isn't going to be ready in five days.

SULLIVAN: I'm a supporter of Obama myself, and you have a nice bloc of Democratic voters here in the city, and I don't want my vote to be lost.

LAWRENCE: Obama has nearly a 30-point lead in New York, so Sullivan's vote wasn't going to swing the election. New Jersey is also solid-blue in the polls. But officials still want to see Tuesday go smoothly. J.C. Polanco is a commissioner at the New York City Board of Elections. He said efforts began before the storm hit.

J.C. POLANCO: As soon as the mayor alerted the city to what was coming, we were able to get in there and secure all of the new electronic voting machines and bring them into the Staten Island armory.

LAWRENCE: Polanco says more than 300 staff have been assessing the damage, sometimes with NYPD escorts. New York does not have voting by mail, but the deadline for getting an absentee ballot has been extended through today.

At least a hundred polling stations in New York City are inside evacuation zones. Some of them are schools, now full of storm refugees. Polanco said heated tents might go up outside those stations. New Jersey Secretary of State Kim Guadagno said citizens in shelters could register to vote by mail, and that voters should still go out to their polling stations, even if the sites have been damaged.

KIM GUADAGNO: What they will find instead is a Department of Defense truck with a well-situated National Guardsman and a big sign that says vote here. So go back to your polling place, anyway.

LAWRENCE: But she spoke at a press conference where New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had already listed his top five priorities, and elections wasn't one of them. Many in the region seem to agree.

Sam Koenig works at a bike shop on Lafayette Street in southern Manhattan. He's been eating canned food in the dark at his apartment nearby.

SAM KOENIG: All the political stuff doesn't really matter at this point. There's a lot more important stuff going on right now that needs to be addressed.

LAWRENCE: Koenig says he feels bad about it, but he's more interested in when the lights are coming back on than who wins the election.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.