Storm-weary US voters face delays, confusion

Posted at 11/07/2012 5:09 AM

NEW YORK - Storm-weary residents across the New York and New Jersey area encountered confusion and long lines as they went to cast ballots in the presidential election on Tuesday, and regional officials began scrambling to prepare for a new weather threat due as early as Wednesday.
 
With the wounds of superstorm Sandy still far from healed and nearly 900,000 households and businesses still without power, officials began ordering closures and evacuations ahead of a powerful nor'easter that could lash the region with 60 mile-per-hour (95-km-per-hour) winds and a mix of rain and snow as temperatures drop toward the freezing mark or below.
 
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered all city parks and beaches closed at noon on Wednesday for at least 24 hours.
 
"We just don't need to send our first responders into the ocean to save someone who is being foolish," Bloomberg said.
 
In the town of Brick on the New Jersey shore, local officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for waterfront neighborhoods. Residents of those areas must leave by 6 p.m. Tuesday, the town said. Several nearby lakes were drained to ease the flooding risk.
 
The new threat comes on the heels of Sandy, which killed 69 people in the Caribbean before it moved north, combined with a strong North Atlantic system, and roared ashore on the New Jersey coast on Oct. 29 as a rare hybrid superstorm.
 
It killed at least 113 in the United States and Canada and knocked out power to millions of people while swamping seaside towns and inundating New York City's streets and subway tunnels.
 
Voter confusion
 
Officials face unprecedented challenges for Election Day across the region, where polling stations were among the thousands of buildings damaged by Sandy eight days ago. New York and New Jersey took measures to ease the way for residents already coping with devastating flood damage, power outages and widespread fuel shortages.
 
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said New Yorkers would be able to vote at any polling place by presenting an affidavit. In New Jersey, those affected by Sandy will be designated as overseas voters, allowing them to cast ballots by fax or email.
 
Cuomo's order appeared to create confusion among poll workers, with paper ballots and affidavits in some cases being distributed even to voters who arrived at their regular polling place as opposed to only those whose assigned voting station was elsewhere.
 
Long lines at polling stations were a common scene around the region.
 
At a voting place in Rockaway Park, a hard-hit beachfront neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, Sharon Brown was so determined to cast her vote that she returned to her flooded home the night before in order to be within walking distance of what she believed to be her voting precinct.
 
"Living through that storm, watching that water come up, it really makes you think you have to vote," Brown said as she waited in line in the unheated tent that served as the voting station for several precincts.
 
When she got to the head of the line though, Brown learned that she had come to the wrong place after all. Still, as she fretted about having enough gas to get to her assigned location and to where she is living temporarily in Brooklyn, she opted to cast a ballot by affidavit, as allowed under Cuomo's order.
 
In Bay Head, New Jersey, most residents had to flee inland for shelter after Sandy wrecked their exclusive seaside community but many were returning Tuesday so they could vote. Some drove for two hours to get to the firehouse polling station.
 
"We're very patriotic in this town," said longtime resident Joanne Pehlivanian. "We're going to vote no matter what."
 
She said the turnout of 170 by mid-morning indicated the usual 400 to 500 people would vote despite the extraordinary hardships.
 
While President Barack Obama was expected to win easily in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the states most affected by Sandy, the storm could spotlight the arcane Electoral College system that decides the presidency.
 
One possibility is that low voter turnout in storm-ravaged states could allow Republican challenger Mitt Romney to win the popular vote even if Obama wins the state-by-state Electoral College race.
 
Romney and Obama are virtually tied in pre-election polls.
 
Mass transit remains stressed
 
Commuters around the region faced another taxing trip to work on Tuesday, although most found the effort somewhat less troublesome than on Monday, when typical commutes of 40 minutes or less stretched to several hours, particularly from New Jersey.
 
New Jersey Transit, whose rail network was badly crippled by Sandy, deployed more buses than it had on Monday and steered other riders to ferries crossing the Hudson River into Manhattan.
 
The New York City subway ran at about 80 percent of its normal service.
 
Many gas stations still lacked electricity or gasoline, and motorists endured long lines at the stations that were open. Fuel rationing was in force in New Jersey, where some residents hired school children to stand in line with gas cans.
 
In New York City, schools were closed on Tuesday for Election Day. Most schools had reopened on Monday for the first time in a week. School resumes on Wednesday in the city, but in many areas of Long Island and New Jersey, they remain shut.