With Election Day rapidly approaching, the devastation from Hurricane Sandy could have residual consequences that may alter the outcome of local and federal elections. With many polling sites still without power and thousands of residents displaced due to flooding and damage to their homes, the New York City Board of Elections has been scrambling to come up with solutions that would allow voters to cast their ballot.
With its Lower Manhattan offices incapacitated due to power outages and flooding, the Board of Elections has been operating out of their satellite offices in each of the five boroughs. Despite this lack of cohesion, the President of the Board of Elections in the City of New York, Commissioner Juan Carlos “J.C.” Polanco insists that the Board has been working “around the clock” with the mayor and governor’s offices to remedy the polling location situation.
“This is crunch time,” Polanco said. “My colleagues are meeting with senior staff and the mayor’s office and trying to tackle the substitute sites, trying to see where we can combine, and looking at alternative sites in places that have been completely wiped out. Obviously this is a tough time for the city, this is an emergency, this is a crisis condition.”
Polanco added that as soon as the mayor notified the city of the impending hurricane, the Board began formulating a contingency plan. They transferred voting scanners from sea level offices in Staten Island and Lower Manhattan to secure locations in the respective boroughs, and deployed commissioners from each borough to different polling sites to survey the damage. According to a report by the website True News, up to 143,000 voters will be assigned new polling sites.
But because of the damage to the usual polling stations, there is a concern among voting rights advocates that, especially without electricity and access to phone or Internet, voters will have trouble getting the information they need to get to the new sites. When asked if the Board would be conducting outreach to voters to inform them of their new sites on Election Day, Polanco instead put the onus on outside advocacy groups to get the word out and voters to do their due diligence.
“We really are depending on the good government groups, we’re depending on the media, we’re depending on everyone who lives in the Zone A areas of the city to take the initiative and call their local Board of Elections and ask about their poll sites,” Polanco said.
Many election experts say that this is an unacceptable alternative, and that the Board itself should be doing everything within their means to inform voters of last-minute changes.
“[The Board of Elections] should call people, they should overnight mail people, they should go into neighborhoods with sound trucks to let people know where polling places are,” said Jerry Goldfeder, an election lawyer.
Several elected officials running for re-election say that voters will be disenfranchised if polling stations are transferred to new sites and people don’t getting the information or access to transportation they need to participate. State Sen. Diane Savino, whose district includes parts of Staten Island and Coney Island–areas that suffered severe damage from the storm–said that a catastrophic event so close to an election is unprecedented and that she is having difficulty juggling Election Day logistics while also helping displaced constituents.
“It’s complicated for us because we’re all dealing with constituents who have dealt with different degrees of devastation,” Savino said. “It’s not about campaigning. It’s about getting people the help that they need but at the same time ensuring that the rights of a free democracy are preserved for them.”
Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, who represents Coney Island and Brighton Beach and is also running for re-election, said that until the Board sent a team to survey new polling sites, he was responsible for finding them himself. When the team finally arrived, they eliminated many new sites based on mundane criteria.
“The way it looks now, I would say at least 40,000 voters in Coney Island will be totally disenfranchised, because the polling places for them will be 40 blocks away,” said Brook-Krasny. “I’m finding new locations, but [the Board of Elections] is saying this one is no good, this one is too small, this one is one staircase up. Every location they’re finding, they have an excuse for why it’s no good.”
Good government groups such as Common Cause New York and the New York Public Interest Research Group have set up hotlines to assist voters, and local tech companies such as Mobile Commons have developed a text-message based poll site locator for voters in New York and New Jersey. But it remains to be seen whether these efforts will be enough to make up for the Board of Elections’ problems, and preserve New Yorkers’ right to vote.
Tags: Alec Brook-Krasny, Common Cause NY, Coney Island, Diane Savino, Election Day, Hurricane Sandy, jc polanco, Jerry Goldfeder, mobile commons, New York City Board of Elections, NYPIRG, Staten Island