The untimely arrival of Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast United States managed to coincide with both high tide, the full moon, and the U.S. Presidential Election. As many people were without gas, polling places were without electricity, and lots of displaced people were either living in shelters or with friends and relatives who had heat and lights, the storm disrupted voting all over the Tri-State area.
Of particular concern to me was the idea that our soldiers who were called up for emergency duty would be disenfranchised by their service.
In the end, New Jersey and New York patched together last minute fixes that would allow determined displaced people to vote. New Jersey governor, Christie, announced that all displaced New Jersey residents could vote via e-mail and fax. New York first extended the absentee ballot application to November 2, late on November 1 and failed to publicize this information or notify the New York National Guard leadership until it was too late for this information to help anyone vote.
Early on November 5, the application was again extended to November 5 but applicants had to go to their county board of elections in person–something impossible for people without gas and soldiers who cannot leave their duty station, which may be far from their home county.
Finally, late on November 5, New York governor, Cuomo, announced all New Yorkers could vote in state-wide and national elections at any polling place with a signed affidavit.
On my husband’s installation, he and other officers gave up sleep to work this issue after their duty shifts were over.
In my opinion, this was all too little, too late. Many people were still disenfranchised by the lack of timely and clear action by the states affected.
When it became clear the storm was going to hit, a clear plan should have been in place for allowing all citizens to vote. Along with information handed out during relief efforts, there should have been printed forms with the state board of elections contact information and how to vote. There is probably also an argument in here for a move to electronic voting so that all district ballots are available at any polling place but that is outside of the scope of this post.
What I do want to discuss is preparedness for future elections.
- Register as a Military Voter: If you are a member of the National Guard, please, RIGHT NOW, before you forget, contact your state board of elections and see your options for registering as a military voter or permanent/perpetual absentee ballot voter. This should pre-register you to receive your absentee ballot just in case you are ever called up for duty during an election.
- Deadline Extensions:All states should immediately extend registration and postmark deadlines to the maximum possible during a state of emergency, especially for military called up for emergency duty. Please write to your governor and state legislators to request that they propose this legislation, immediately.
- Better Coordination with Military Leadership: This does not require legislative action–just better communication. Our state governments need to make sure the National Guard leadership is aware of all new information as soon as it becomes available.
- Explore Alternatives to Traditional Polling Places: The governors of the affected states were clearly caught off guard by the timing of the storm. No one should be able to use that excuse in the future. All states should have emergency plans for displaced people to vote in ALL elections, including local ones.
- Improved National Guard Communication with Soldiers: As soon as soldiers are called up, they should be presented with a packet detailing their options for casting their votes, all deadlines, and directions for how to use military facilities to meet the requirements. These men and women barely had time to secure their homes and make sure their own families were safe before heading out to help others. There should be no hurdles to them casting their votes.
You might think this a small matter when people lost their lives, their homes, and their livelihoods but isn’t this something for which so many have marched and fought and died? One of the missions of the soldiers has been to monitor generators and safety at polling places. Should they guard others so civilians may vote while they themselves cannot? Relief efforts must absolutely continue but they do not have to and should not result in disenfranchising our soldiers.