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Nation & World

Battered N.J. tries to ensure right to vote

(MCT) — HACKENSACK, N.J. — After an election year with billions spent on commercials and campaigns — and heated battles in many states over how much fraud control at polling places is appropriate — it comes down to this: Storm-ravaged New Jersey is rewriting the playbook on the fly to let as many people as possible have their votes counted Tuesday.

People in hurricane shelters got absentee ballots. Thousands more waited in lines to get them at county offices. Those staying with friends and relatives are being treated the same as overseas members of the military and allowed to vote by email, fax or at a polling site far from home.

The option to use National Guard trailers to replace those polling sites — one out of 34 statewide — that were battered or blacked out by Hurricane Sandy was rejected as election officials scrambled to get the word out and make sure voters could find the new locations.

Every New Jersey ballot will have President Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s names at the top, and even Gov. Chris Christie said long ago that Obama would get the state’s 12 electoral votes. Voters will choose a U.S. senator. Control of the county Freeholder Board is at stake in Bergen. The public is being asked whether to cap state judges’ pay and authorize $750 million in bonds for higher education. And this year, for the first time, voters will pick their local school board in November.

Some lawyers warned that important ballot security safeguards were being ignored. And campaigns had to rewrite or throw out get-out-the-vote strategies of mailings, phone banks, walkers hanging literature on doors and drivers to take people to the polls.

They can’t make calls to dead phones or houses that no longer exist, send volunteers or mail fliers to streets blocked by downed trees, get senior citizens out of high-rises with no electricity for elevators, or drive voters and volunteers around without gas.

Leaders of both major parties in Bergen County said they had to scale back or eliminate those things in recent days, and the efforts they are making are hampered by volunteer crews who are suffering with the same inconveniences everyone else is.

“There’s no playbook for this,” said Adam Silverstein, spokesman for the Bergen Democrats.

“This is turning the campaign upside down,” echoed Bob Yudin, the county’s Republican chairman.

Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said lower turnout in New Jersey and New York, blue states expected to stay that way in the race between Obama and Romney, could contribute to a situation many have mentioned as possible in which Obama wins the electoral vote but loses the popular vote.

But Christie questioned whether turnout would really drop.

“In one sense, you can say people are so preoccupied with the storm stuff they may not be as interested in voting,” he said at a news conference Monday. “On the other hand, we’re making it so much easier to vote, that you might have more people turn out.”

For Democrats and Republicans, voter persuasion efforts in recent days have been supplemented or replaced with making sure people know where and how to vote.

One hundred twenty polling places in Bergen County and nine in Passaic County are being moved to new sites because buildings were damaged or have no power.

In hard-hit Moonachie, all voters have to go to the county Vocational-Technical School on Route 46, which is actually in Teterboro. Shuttles will be provided.

In other towns, voters can call their municipal clerks or use mobile phones to send a text message containing the word “where” to 877-877 to check for polling locations.

Some towns were also using email blasts, automatic calls to every residence, fliers and word of mouth to spread the word. Signs are to be posted at each closed polling site showing the location of the new one, and in some cases volunteers or shuttles will also be offering help.

Victims displaced by Sandy who cannot get to get to their hometown have until 5 p.m. Tuesday to apply to vote by email or fax.

If that’s not possible, they can go to any polling site and get a provisional ballot, but it will only have statewide candidates for president and Senate, and the two ballot questions.

Neither party could predict who was helped or hurt by the situation.

For every voter who does not vote in heavily Democratic Fort Lee or Moonachie, there could be another from the Republican-leaning towns in the northern part of the county.

“How that balances out is just a guesstimate,” Yudin said.

Returns could also be delayed. All weekend and again Monday, county clerks served long lines of voters who showed up to apply for and fill out absentee ballots, and election boards will start to open and count them — at least 34,000 in Bergen County, and 11,000 in Passaic — this morning.

Ilya Welfeld of Bergenfield said the staff at the Bergen County Administration Building on Sunday was “obviously unprepared” for the crush of people who showed up.

She described waiting two hours after turning in an application to get a ballot.

“It was worse than waiting in line for gas right now,” she said. “I thought it may be a warming center because there were so many people there.”

Once she applied, Welfeld was afraid to leave because she’d seen that clerks call names and hand over ballots without checking for proof of identification, and was worried someone else would pick hers up and vote.

“If this is a close election, I have zero confidence that there is a real way to tell who voted for him,” she said. “It’s just really weird.”

In all, 1,700 people voted that way in Hackensack on Sunday, and lines were not as long Monday.

County Clerk John Hogan said absentee voting through Sunday was already higher, by about 4,000 votes, than in the 2008 presidential election.

“There’s a lot of people from Moonachie and Little Ferry,” Hogan said.

In Passaic County, 800 people voted on Sunday alone, said Ken Hirman of the Board of Elections.

Polling sites will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. But once they close, Yudin said that instead of calling in the final tallies, municipal clerks in Bergen will have to drive the cylinders from the voting machines holding the results to Hackensack.

Voting rights advocates raised red flags Monday over some of the new procedures, including electronic voting and permitting voters to cast ballots at polling places that aren’t their own.

Penny M. Venetis, a Rutgers-Newark law professor who is co-director of the school’s constitutional litigation clinic, said it was unclear whether Secretary of State and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno had the authority to order the changes.

Venetis said the moves could be the basis to challenge election results in court. She and others also raised concerns over possible security lapses in email and fax voting.

“Internet voting is inherently insecure because it’s difficult for the parties to witness what’s going on,” said Princeton University computer science Professor Andrew Appel, who like Venetis has been involved in long-running litigation seeking to force the state to upgrade election security measures.

Appel said email messages can be altered without the sender’s knowledge and are vulnerable to fraud.

New York rejected email voting, and Doug Kellner, co-chairman of that state’s elections board, called it “completely insecure.”

Military personnel and overseas voters voting by email or fax have to mail in paper copies of their ballots as verification, but Venetis said Guadagno’s directive on electronic voting makes no mention of paper verification.

Guadagno said in an interview that it would be required.

“The process is exactly the same,” she said.

New Jersey is one of the few states, along with Alaska, that allows limited electronic voting, according to Pam Smith, the president of the Verified Voting Foundation, a national advocacy group that opposes the practice.

Christie said anyone planning to sue over the state’s voting procedures should “get in line.”

“This is extraordinary circumstances, and this is what we’re doing,” he said.

One election-related storm response the Christie administration envisioned won’t be needed on Election Day. Guadagno said that no polling place will be run out of National Guard trucks — something the state discussed for areas with widespread power loss.

The move, however, concerned some Democrats, who feared the sight of armed guardsmen at polling places could scare off minority and urban voters.

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