Power outages still threaten the vote

From New Jersey to Ohio, election officials are scrambling to make sure people can cast their ballots on Nov. 6

Topics: Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Sandy, Disenfranchisement, voting, 2012 Elections, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, e-voting,

Since both before Superstorm Sandy hit, and after, we’ve been reporting on concerns in states where voters are forced to vote on electronic voting systems on Election Day and, thus, could be kept from being able to cast a vote at all in this Tuesday’s Presidential Election should power be unavailable at polling sites.

We’ve noted that voters simply cannot cast a vote at all on such systems when the power is out, and that it’s just one more reason why no American should ever be forced to vote on the 100% unverifiable voting systems, incredibly, still in use across most of states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and parts of Ohio which were all hit hard by the storm, along with New York, Connecticut and elsewhere.

We’ve got a bit of good news to report today, for some of the voters whose ability to vote at all has been imperiled by this inexcusable, completely foreseeable failure by public officials who have long ago been warned about this possibility and yet refused to do the sensible thing and move to a verifiable paper ballot system to avoid it.

The news is more encouraging in states like NY and CT, where officials respect voters enough to allow them all to vote on paper ballots, even when natural disasters haven’t struck…

• NEW JERSEY

On Saturday, Republican NJ Gov. Chris Christie and his Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno issued an order that both opened county election offices for Early Voting over the weekend, as well as, most importantly, ordered paper ballots to be sent to those Garden State polling places where power may still be out on Election Day. The state is to be applauded for that.

According to the Washington Post, National Guard “military trucks with paper ballots would serve as polling places in areas where polling places still don’t have power” on Tuesday.

At the same time, Guadagno has also issued what appears to be an insane order [PDF] to allow voting by both email and fax, for “Any voter who has been displaced from their primary residence because of Hurricane Sandy.”

While the order is obviously a response to a disaster, it would appear to be a recipe for disaster, as well as loss of privacy, fraud, and serious judicial challenge in the case of any close election contest. While the motivations for this particular order may all be well and good — we’ll presume they are, as the state is certainly up against an unprecedented wall, and some voters may simply be unable to get to the polls on Election Day due to the continuing after-effects of the storm — this part of their solution may come back to haunt the Governor, the Lt. Governor and, most importantly, voters in the state.

The Wall Street Journal explains: “The administration said people could cast those ballots in two steps. First, they should email or fax an application for a mail-in ballot through their county clerk’s office. Once that application is approved, voters can email or fax the ballot by 8 p.m. Tuesday.”

The same order also extends the deadline for the receipt of mail-in ballots through November 19th, for those which are postmarked by Monday, November 5th.

Another order [PDF] issued by the state in the wake of Sandy, decrees that voters may also cast a provisional ballot at any polling place in the State and that those ballots “must be counted by the Board of Elections in the voter’s county of registration.” The order also states clear that “All eligible votes must be counted.”

NJ county election officials were also ordered [PDF] to open their offices “at a minimum” from 8:30am to 4:30pm over this weekend and on Monday to allow voters to Early Vote.

Contrast all of that with the behavior of Ohio’s elections officials, which we’ll get to in a moment, where they are still working to restrict access to the polls, even in the wake of Sandy which hit that state as well.

Beginning Tuesday morning, NJ residents should be able to send the text message “WHERE” to 877877 or visit http://elections.nj.gov, to determine their polling location in the event that precincts have had to be moved due to power outages or flooding. While neither option is available yet, Christie “said they would be accurate by Tuesday,” according to the New Jersey Plain-Dealer.

• PENNSYLVANIA

In Pennsylvania, to date, where power is still out in a number of areas of Philadelphia, and where similarly unverifiable electronic voting systems are forced on voters on Election Day, there has been no such proclamations by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett to ensure that voters will be able to vote.

The Republican Governor — who has spent much of the year fighting to enforce a polling place Photo ID restriction that would likely have, until temporarily blocked by the state court system at the last minute, kept tens or even hundreds of thousands of legal voters from being able to cast their vote at all — initially extended the state’s absentee ballot deadline after the storm, but only for those returning absentee ballots in person. Those who had sent in absentee ballots by mail had to cross their fingers and hope they showed up in time to meet the original Friday deadline, despite local postal service which had also been crippled by the Superstorm for a number of days.

But late last week, Corbett, perhaps for the first time in his life, did the right thing and extended the deadline for mail-in absentee ballots as well through 5pm on Monday. A more generous Governor might have allowed far longer for ballots to arrive by mail, as long as they were postmarked prior to the close of polls on Election Day. Most of the Governors in states hit by the storm have done exactly that.

On Saturday, Corbett issued an executive order that does allow emergency responders deployed in Hurricane Sandy to apply for an absentee ballot until 5pm Monday, if their deployment takes them out of their home county for the duration of voting on Tuesday. Those emergency absentee ballots must be postmarked or delivered in person to the county election office by 5pm Monday. If mailed, they must be received by 5pm, Tuesday, November 13th.

As of Saturday morning, AP was reporting that “Between 250 and 300 polling places remained without power just days before Tuesday’s election” in the Keystone State.

Pennsylvania requires that only enough emergency paper ballots to service 20 to 25% of the registered electorate be made available at each polling location. So, whether or not enough emergency paper ballots even exist at this point, should that many polling places still be lacking power by Tuesday, remains unknown. Unlike NJ’s Republican Governor, PA’s appears to be making little to no effort to ensure that voters will be able to vote, even in the event of power outages at the polls.

• VIRGINIA

Virginia, like PA and NJ, forces almost all of its voters to vote on 100% unverifiable electronic touch-screen systems on Election Day. The good news, however, is that the state was spared the brunt of the storm.

Computer World reports (in an article in which our previously expressed concerns about this situation are also quoted) that “Nikki Sheridan, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Board of Elections, said the state anticipates using its electronic voting machines in all jurisdictions” on Election Day. That’s normally not good news, but in this case, the fact that people can vote at all — never mind if their votes will be counted accurately (there is no way that we can ever know on such machines) — is at least good to hear.

While there were substantial power outages in VA, officials believe that all polling locations should be back up and running in time for Tuesday.

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“So far, out of the state’s 2,500 polling places, only one has been moved because it was rendered unusable by the storm,” Sheridan said.

The city of Chesapeake, on the other hand, “is among a handful of jurisdictions in the state that will use paper ballots and electronic scanners to record the vote,” reports Computer World.

“We do have contingency back up plans in place for all of our equipment,” the city’s General Registrar William Spradlin said. “In the case of the electronic scanners, every precinct will have emergency ballot boxes, to collect ballots for later counting if we have a failure with a scanner on Election Day,” he explained. Ah, common sense. Imagine that?!

Spradlin also notes that all electronic poll books have been backed up with a paper poll book, for use in the event of any problems with them.

• NEW YORK

In New York, the news is slightly more encouraging than it is in PA and NJ at this hour, thanks to the fact that officials respect voters enough in the state to require paper ballots for all voters by state law (even if those paper ballots are tallied by oft-failed, easily-manipulated optical-scan computer systems). If a polling place is open, power or not, voters should be able to vote, thanks to statewide use of paper ballots.

The New York Times reports on Saturday that “Half of the polling sites in Nassau County on Long Island still lacked power on Friday. And New York City was planning to build temporary polling sites in tents in some of its worst-hit neighborhoods.”

But, they note, “Weary local elections officials vowed that the vote would go on. ‘Come hell or high water — we had both — we’re voting on Tuesday,’ William T. Biamonte, the Democratic commissioner at the Nassau County Board of Elections, said.”

We’ve heard similar sentiments of optimistic determination from state elections officials as well.

Nonetheless, tall challenges remain. The NYC Board of Elections website reports on Saturday evening that “Our central phone bank (866 VOTE NYC) is not functioning properly and our Manhattan and Staten Island offices have been closed since Monday due to loss of power. Our offices in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn are now open and operating between the hours of 10AM and 9PM.”

The site also notes that “The processing of absentee ballot applications has been delayed by the storm but our staff are working diligently to process all absentee ballots that will be distributed by USPS overnight mail.”

The state has extended the deadline for absentee ballots to be received by mail from 7 days previously, to 13 days after Election Day, on November 19th, though they must still be postmarked no later than November 5th. Absentee ballots can also be dropped off in person by November 5th as well.

Poll site changes for New York City, as well as Orange and Suffolk Counties are linked on the State Board of Elections website here.

One other interesting NY note: a long-standing provision in state law allows for an extra day of polling in the event of a natural disaster which results in less than 25% turnout at a jurisdiction. While that provision has never been triggered, it could come in to play this year, in a worst case scenario, though officials hope that won’t be the case.

• CONNECTICUT

About 80 polling places in Connecticut are still without power, as of Friday, according Secretary of State Denise Merrill, says USA Today.

While Merril says that most sites should have power restored by Tuesday, “some are not going to be usable for safety reasons, even if we get power back.”

As a “last option,” the state will consolidate some polling places. “The worst thing you can do is move polling places. It’s very inconvenient to voters, and most people don’t have communication right now,” she told the paper.

But, again, the good news, like New York, the state allows all voters to vote on paper. So if they can get to an open polling place, they will be able to cast their vote.

• OHIO

And then there’s Ohio — the only state that actually matters, if you listen to the corporate media and buy into their misleading notion that the only election taking place on Tuesday is the one for President.

At least nine precincts were still without power on Friday night in Cuyahoga County, the home of Cleveland and the largest county in the state. “Locations for more than a dozen others can’t be reached by phone,” according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“If we encounter outages, we have portable generators we could deploy to a limited number of locations and also have flashlight supplies on hand to help deal with that situation,” Jane Platten, director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections told the paper. “At this point, we are encouraged by reports from the utility companies that they hope all outages will be restored by the end of Monday.” That’s cutting it close.

Early voting has been hobbled due to the power outages, but the good news here as well is that — thanks to a tie broken by the former Democratic Sec. of State Jennifer Brunner some years ago — the county moved from unverifiable touch-screen systems to a paper ballot system. The county’s two Republican Board of Election commissioners had wanted to stay with the touch-screens, while the two Democrats wanted to move to paper ballots, after Brunner’s landmark EVEREST report had found that touch-screen systems were both unverifiable and easily manipulated in myriad ways. When Brunner broke the tie, the county moved to a paper ballot system.

The availability of paper ballots is the upside. The downside is new Republican Sec. of State Jon Husted’s extraordinary and continuing attempt to make voting harder in the Buckeye State in every way possible, even on the heels of Sandy.

Among those ways: limiting Early Voting, appealing a court ruling to keep provisional ballots from being counted, even in the event when they are cast at the wrong precinct due to incorrect instructions by poll workers and, on Friday, he issued an order to county boards of elections “to reject provisional ballots when ID information on a particular part of the ballot form is incomplete, contrary to a court decision on provisional ballots a week ago and contrary to statements made by attorneys for Husted at an Oct. 24 court hearing,” the AP reported on Saturday.

Civil rights groups filed an emergency motion in court on Friday, challenging Husted’s last minute directive in the key battleground state.

In 2008, there were some 40,000 uncounted provisionals, and a court order in July ordered that those cast due to no fault of the voter — for example, when a poll worker directs a voter to cast a provisional ballot at the wrong “precinct” table in the right “polling place” gymnasium — be counted this year.

On Wednesday however, Husted saw a “victory” when the conservative U.S. Sixth Court of Appeals stayed the lower court’s order, finding that such ballots should not be counted. The ruling could set the stage for what would be one hell of a legal battle should the results of the election in Ohio be as close as many pre-election pollsters are still suggesting it might be at this hour.

With the squeeze placed on Early Voting by both Superstorm Sandy and Secretary of State Husted, the fight to vote at all, and to have that vote counted and counted accurately in Ohio could end up mirroring the 2004 Presidential Election Debacle in the state, as overseen by the previous, incredibly partisan Republican Sec. of State J. Kenneth Blackwell.

Good luck, Ohio!

First published at The BRAD BLOG.

Investigative journalist and broadcaster Brad Friedman is the creator and publisher of The BRAD Blog. He has contributed to Mother Jones, The Guardian, Truthout, Huffington Post, The Trial Lawyer magazine and Editor & Publisher.

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