April 25, 2014

avatar

New Jersey Voting in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy has disrupted many aspects of life here in New Jersey. Even beyond the physical destruction, the state’s infrastructure is still coming back on line. Many homes are still without power and heat, and some roads are closed. Schools were closed all of last week, and some will be closed for longer.

Sandy has also disrupted plans for Tuesday’s election. The election cannot be rescheduled, so we have to find a way to let people vote. Here in Princeton, 63% of the voting districts will vote in temporary, relocated polling places.

In response to the electoral challenges, New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno has issued three orders (1, 2, 3), decreeing changes in voting procedures:

  • Voters displaced from their homes by the storm will be allowed to vote using the same mechanisms as overseas and military voters. These allow the voter to apply for an absentee ballot electronically and to receive the blank ballot electronically. After filling out the ballot, the voter can submit the ballot electronically, provided that the signed hardcopy ballot is then mailed to election officials for eventual comparison with the electronic ballot.
  • The deadline for receipt of mail-in ballots has been extended to Nov. 19.
  • On Election Day, voters can cast a provisional ballot at any polling place in the state. These ballots will be transported to election officials in the voter’s home jurisdiction for processing.
  • Procedures are in place for notifying voters when polling places are relocated.

The most controversial of these is the first one, which has been summarized by some commentators as “email voting.” Although the order does allow a ballot to be submitted by email or fax, this is subject to the submission of a signed hardcopy ballot, and the law directs election officials to compare the electronic ballot with the eventually-received hardcopy.

(My colleague Andrew Appel criticizes the order for not saying clearly enough that follow-on submission of hardcopy ballot would be required. I agree that the order should have been clearer about this, and I hope that any blank ballots sent to the affected voters will be accompanied by very clear instructions, to minimize the number of voters who fail to submit the hardcopy.)

I am in no way a fan of online voting. Just last week I hosted an online symposium where experts talked about the many barriers to secure online voting. But under these circumstances I can understand why the State has taken the steps it has. The email+hardcopy approach will undermine ballot secrecy, and inevitably some voters will forfeit their votes by failing to submit the follow-on hardcopy ballot correctly. But at the same time, the state is allowing citizens who are facing a tough situation a greater chance to cast their votes. I would strongly oppose any long-term move toward online voting, but I can see the point of allowing limited email+hardcopy voting for displaced voters under these very unusual circumstances.