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Officials fret about polling sites in storm-ravaged states

A man rides a bike past three others walking through water still sitting in the streets to survey damage from Hurricane Sandy in the New Dor
A man rides a bike past three others walking through water still sitting in the streets to survey damage from Hurricane Sandy in the New Dor

By Jilian Mincer

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Officials in New York, New Jersey and other states hit hard by the powerful storm Sandy are anxiously waiting to see when power will be restored in darkened areas and whether polling sites may need to be moved for next Tuesday's presidential election.

"We're open for business November 6. That will be Election Day," said John Conklin, spokesman for the New York state Board of Elections. "We're doing everything we can to make sure that everyone who goes to the polls will have a poll site to go to."

That is the big question - where the voters will go to cast their ballots, particularly in parts of New York City and New Jersey that remain crippled from Sandy, which ravaged parts of the northeastern United States on Monday night.

Much of the lower half of Manhattan is still without power. Nearby areas, including the New York City borough of Staten Island, the New Jersey shore and the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, are struggling to recover from flooding and storm-related damage.

Conklin said the local election boards in the areas hit hardest by the storm are assessing all their polling sites to decide which ones will be up and running by Tuesday's election.

Power companies have been asked to prioritize getting electricity back to election sites after first restoring power to crucial places like hospitals.

Election officials in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are evaluating polling sites to see if the buildings are safe and if they are accessible to the public as well as to the election boards that must deliver voting machines.

Voting in New York and Connecticut could take place without electricity if necessary. They both use "optical scan" ballots that are filled out by hand and then scanned through a machine to get counted, election officials said.

The scanning machines can operate on battery power. If that runs out, the ballots could be placed in a locked box and at the end of the voting day could be transported to a site with electricity and run through the scanner to be counted, officials said.

Inaccessible polling sites may need to be consolidated or moved to other nearby locations. In some areas, like in the New York City borough of Queens where fire destroyed many buildings, a tent may need to be set up as a temporary voting location, Conklin said.

Conklin said polling sites may not be open in every voting precinct but will be open in as many as possible. "If you have to move a site, you don't want to move it too far because you don't want to disenfranchise people," Conklin said.

VOTER TURNOUT

William Biamonte, the Democratic commissioner for the Nassau County Board of Elections on New York's Long Island, said he is worried about equipment, poll workers and votes.

"I think it's going to affect voter turnout no matter," Biamonte said. "Peoples' homes were destroyed."

Of the county's 375 polling sites, less than half are ready to go, Biamonte said, and others are either without power, operating on generators or have not been in contact.

He said that while voting can be done without electricity, it could delay the counting and could also be dangerous for poll workers, who tend to be elderly, and voters if they are coming to cast a ballot in darkness.

Biamonte said that while the state has promised generators to provide electricity, the county does not have the staff to properly install them.

New York state extended its absentee ballot application deadline until Friday and extended the deadline for absentee ballots to be received and counted by six days, until November 19.

Connecticut extended voter registration by two days until Thursday. Secretary of State Denise Merrill said up to 95 polling locations are without power, but said the utility companies are trying to restore electricity as soon as possible.

"We will be ready to vote next Tuesday no matter what, and the preferences would be not to move or consolidate any polling locations unless absolutely necessary," Merrill said in a statement.

In New Jersey, where entire oceanside neighborhoods were flooded, authorities are focused more on public safety than elections.

"I'd like to have the polling places powered up for next Tuesday. I'm not yet to the point where I know whether we're going to be able to do that or we're not going to be able to do that," New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said in a briefing on Wednesday, noting that his top priority is restoring power and clean water to residents.

Christie said his administration would be coming up with contingency plans for polling sites that may not have power, but vowed to be ready for Election Day.

Joseph Paris, the mayor of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, said some voting locations there and in Bergen County may have to be relocated due to lack of power and flooding.

In Pennsylvania, where hundreds of thousands of people remained without power, utility companies hope to get the electricity back for Election Day.

"I don't want to be overly optimistic but I do think we'll be close to having all of our polling places up and running by Election Day," said Frank Custer, a spokesman of Montgomery County, near Philadelphia.

(Reporting by Jilian Mincer in New York, Walden Siew in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. and Suzanne Barlyn in Washington Crossing, Pa.; Writing by Deborah Charles)

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