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National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

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 Sandy causes headaches for local elections officials

By Charlie Ban
STAFF WRITER

 

 

While thousands of New Jersey and New York residents made sense of their fortunes following Hurricane Sandy’s landfall, county clerks and boards of elections were looking to the future — a presidential election seven days away.

In Monmouth County, N.J. one of the worst-affected counties in the state, County Clerk Claire French’s staff was still working to count ballots a week after Election Day, an effort that was expected to last another week.

The 18-hour days of election week have now given way to 10- and 12-hour shifts. If the power outages in various polling places weren’t enough, the storm’s effect on the population added a layer of complexity and extended the electoral uncertainty.

Diaspora throughout New Jersey because of the storm motivated the lieutenant governor to extend overseas voter status to anyone who had been displaced, allowing them to submit provisional ballots that would be mailed to their home county. Postal service backups meant the statutory deadline to receive ballots would be extended 13 days after Election Day.

The Monmouth County clerk’s office shares the emergency services building, so French’s staff had lights and electricity. The building became a refuge, for most county workers who had no power at home.

“We were so isolated, especially since our power at home was out,” French said.  “We never listened to the radio, didn’t watch TV, didn’t have time to read newspapers. I kept up with what was going on when I talked to other county clerks.”

Other county departments assigned staff to work in the clerk’s office, which swelled to 20 people from the normal five with computers plugged into every available outlet. The overall staff for the election grew to 60, with 20 apiece also coming from the board of elections’ and the superintendent of elections’ offices.

County workers visited shelters with ballot applications and returned the next day with the ballots.

The usual trickle of walk-in voters ballooned to more than 4,000, which meant long lines in cold weather over three days of early voting.

“It’s a presidential election year, so everyone wanted their vote to be heard,” she said.

Given the power outages that topped out at 90 percent of the county, polling places had to consolidate where they did have electricity, meaning as many as seven voting districts could have converged on one spot.

Complicating matters for French was that she was running for her office this year, and her canvassing efforts left her feeling distracted, and the stress of the situation began to wear on her.

“When I’d knock on a door, I was half tempted to ask if I could use their shower,” she said.

As the emergency ballots came in through the mail, it became apparent they were unable to be scanned, so staffers had to transcribe the votes onto a ballot that could be scanned, delaying the results further. French is unsure if the $12,000 worth of replacement ballots she had to order will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency because they were necessitated by gubernatorial executive orders related to the storm.

At this point, French said she hoped to have results confirmed by early December. As much as her office has had to react to the storm and its effects, she thinks it would be unwise to plan elections in anticipation of a similar storm.

“There’s no way you can be prepared for something of this magnitude,” she said. “It would be a waste of time and personnel to design a system around a 100-year storm like this.”

 Meanwhile, in Nassau County, N.Y., on Long Island, Election Commissioner William Biamonte called the week “Muphy’s Law on steroids.”

“The only things we were missing were an earthquake and tidal wave,” he said.

One week before the election, 200 of the county’s 275 polling places lacked power. Five days after that, half were still in the dark. With no assurances from the power company that electricity would be restored, Biamonte got nervous. His county of more than 900,000 registered voters typically had a 70 percent turnout for presidential elections, with 74 percent in 2008.

“Once Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo put the hammer down (Nov. 1) and prioritized getting power back to poll sites, we had some movement,” he said. “Those two-hour battery backups wouldn’t have made it.”

Biamonte’s office went into a war-room mentality and constantly checked each polling place for power and preparedness, eventually having to move only 40.

The last big hurdle was recruiting and training 700 replacement poll workers to do the work of 5,500 regulars, most of whom had evacuated or had lost contact because phone service was out.

“We put together some makeshift classes over the weekend to train them,” he said. “They came through for us in what was probably a very busy time in their lives. We probably dropped by 150,000 votes (down to approximately 54 percent turnout) but the election happened.”

Morris County, N.J. fared a bit better, but rather than the deluge of water, Clerk Joan Bramhall found herself bracing against a digital flood.

“Emails,” she said. “Emails all the time. It was overwhelming.”

She estimated more than 1,900 email ballots came into her office following Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s executive order to expand email and fax voting, and for counties to extend their deadline for receiving those votes.

“We didn’t have quite enough time to prepare for receiving all of the votes, but we just kept at it until we made a dent,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can. As soon as that order went out, wooom!, we started getting them.”

The positive side, those increased avenues for voting helped Morris County reach what Bramhall believes to be a record turnout, at 60 percent, so far.

Sandy’s impact on elections in W. Va., Md.

 

When Terry Payne went to bed on Oct. 29 without power, the Webster County, W.Va. clerk expected to at least be back in the office the next day, regardless of Hurricane Sandy’s effects.

What she didn’t expect was almost four feet of snow that surprised the Mountain State and trapped her in her driveway for three more days, three crucial days leading up to the 2012 general election. At least 28 of West Virginia’s 55 counties saw snowfall, with the heaviest along the Allegheny Mountains, which extend into Maryland and Pennsylvania.

“My husband plowed the driveway, but the secondary roads were impassable,” Payne said. “All we could do was wait for the snow to melt or the plows to reach us.”

When she finally reached the powerless courthouse Friday morning, she and her staff worked diligently to sure that despite losing three days of early voting, Webster County would have an election as planned.

In the end, Payne’s husband continued to help shoulder much of the effort for the election. He made rounds to polling places with gas for generators and heaters to keep the poll workers comfortable while she and her staff made sure the voting machines were ready to go. All told, the effort went smoothly and the Payne said the county’s 46 percent turnout was better than she expected, given that many voters didn’t have electricity and were dealing with plenty of distractions.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be like this,” she said, “I hope and pray it never happens again during an election.”

In adjacent Randolph County, Clerk Brenda Wiseman said turnout was actually up to 54 percent an increase from the mid-30s, which she attributes to voters wanting to spend some time in a warm building, even if it meant waiting in line.

Garrett County,  Md.’s election went off without too much of a hitch, extending early voting one day to make up for two days that were lost during the storm. Garrett borders West Virginia and got some of the snow. On the other side of Maryland, despite high water levels in the resort town of Ocean City, election operations in Somerset County were not terribly affected, the effects limited to a suspension of early voting for two days when county buildings were evacuated.