Power out at HQ, Board of Elections scrambles to prepare for Tuesday

UPDATE, Thursday 11 a.m.: The New York City Board of Elections has extended the deadline for mail-in absentee ballot applications to Friday, November 2. Ballots must be postmarked no later than Monday, November 5.

Officials at the city Board of Elections say they are still confident in their ability to be ready for voters on Tuesday in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, but they’re racing against the clock to finish preparations for the presidential election.

On Wednesday afternoon, the board’s headquarters at 32 Broadway were still without power, while staff members were being forced to overnight-mail absentee ballots to applicants. The board is still developing a plan to notify voters in the event that poll sites have to be moved, since some are currently being used as hurricane shelters and others may be damaged.

Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who runs a committee that conducts oversight hearings of the BOE, said that her greatest concern was the processing of absentee ballot requests, and called the move to use overnight mail “important.”

She said she had received some 30 anxious emails from constituents about absentee voting.

“People have to be able to vote,” Brewer said. “Whatever cost for democracy, you’ve gotta pay it.”

J.C. Polanco, a Republican commissioner from the Bronx, said that the board had already received 108,000 absentee ballot applications for Tuesday’s general election.

However, neither he nor board director of communications Valerie Vazquez could provide  a breakdown of how many of those ballots were still to be sent out, or of the price tag of using overnight mail. The deadline for absentee ballot requests was Tuesday, October 30.

Vazquez said that the Board of Elections had requested permission from the state Board of Elections to extend the deadline for postmarks on absentee ballot requests, to November 2, but had not heard back.

A spokesman for the state board would say only that a decision would be made “soon.”

Registered voters may also pick up or cast absentee ballots in person at their local Board of Elections office, which except for the Staten Island location —which remains closed due to the storm — will be open through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

In the end, it took Brooklyn resident Nina Rastogi five hours to cast her vote at the downtown Brooklyn office on Adams Street.

“It did take a lot longer than I expected,” she said, after being shuttled through several rooms and into a cardboard voting booth by staff she says did their best to be helpful. “I thought, I’m just going to cast my vote and do my best to discharge my civic duty.”

Polanco said that the BOE was in the process of checking on its roughly 1,300 poll sites, to see which ones would still be available for Election Day.

Many residents vote at public schools, where Polanco said that the Board of Elections — in concert with city and state officials — would be setting up tents and generators outdoors if interior spaces are unavailable.

State Board of Elections Spokesman John Conklin said that his office may be able to provide state and federal grants to the city board to help pay for equipment.

If some poll sites are completely unavailable, they will be moved, with changes posted to the city Board of Elections website, Vazquez said.

“Once we have that, we’ll have to figure out a strategy in terms of local community papers, how people can help us spread the word,” she said.

While the power remains out at Manhattan headquarters, staffers are currently working from a facility typically used to store the borough’s voting machines.

Vazquez said that the BOE was working with Con Edison and city officials on installing a generator, and hoped to have power back by tomorrow.

In an interview, Councilmember Brewer expressed concern about the outage impacting the Board of Elections’ efforts to ready its electronic voting system, since voting data is ultimately uploaded to hardware at the Broadway headquarters.

“It’s a huge system, so just to power it up, they have to do a lot of input between now” and Election Day, Brewer said. “You can’t hook [power] up the day before the election…it has to be hooked up now.”

Vazquez dismissed those concerns, saying that the BOE’s scanners and ballots were had already been prepared.

“Because we expect to have power probably tomorrow, and the election is Tuesday, we’re confident we’ll be fine,” she said.

Con Ed did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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