Polling Confusion Adds to List of Woes in Post-Sandy Rockaways

A line at a relocated polling place in the Rockaways on election day

NEW YORK – When the sun rose over the Rockaways’ Arverne neighborhood on the morning of election day, it rose on a disaster area.

Ten days after Hurricane Sandy felled trees and transplanted tons of sand from the beaches to people’s doorsteps, the area still was without power, many residences lacked running water and transportation was a substantial challenge. The streets reverberated with the sounds of generators and emergency vehicles. Cell phone reception was erratic. The mail did not come.

And when the polling sites were relocated from buildings damaged by the storm to better-equipped facilities, some voters were not prepared.

Oly Majek, an Ocean Village resident, expressed displeasure with the government’s handling of his polling site’s relocation.

“I found out it was moved yesterday. That was late,” said Oly Majek, who lives at Ocean Village Apartments, a large apartment complex in Arverne. He said that he became aware of the change of location because of signs posted around the complex. The signs were posted the previous day, Mr. Majek said.

Mr. Majek indicated that the late placement of location change notices made him suspicious. “I guess they wanted us to miss our votes,” he suggested.

Mr. Majek’s feelings of suspicion were echoed by other Ocean Village residents. On the topics of the government’s administration of post-Sandy election matters, the pace of services restoration and the attentiveness of local representatives, residents consistently attested to their feelings of suspicion or frustration as the days without access to basic services accumulated.

In an interview on Saturday, November 3rd, three days before the election, Ocean Village resident Eugene Racks wondered aloud, “Where’s [city councilman] James Sanders? Where’s anybody right now?” Mr. Racks said that while he didn’t want to place blame on the handling of the recovery on anyone, he didn’t feel that the authorities’ response was adequate. “At this point, nobody from the renting office, no one from security or maintenance; no one has come and said anything. No council people – nobody,” he said.

For his part, councilman (and now state senator-elect) Sanders has made headlines recently for the criticism he has heaped on the Long Island Power Authority for its slowness to reconnect the power in his constituency. But given the blockage of information avenues in places like Arverne, it’s unlikely that many of Mr. Sanders’s constituents have read those headlines.

By election day, Mr. Racks was exasperated that the power still was off, and he didn’t learn about his polling place’s relocation until that morning. Still, he was unwilling to place blame for the continued service disruptions on any single person or group of people. “We need all the help we can get. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about pointing fingers at people,” he said. “Everybody out here is catching Hell.”

It’s not clear what efforts the local government made to notify residents of the changes to their polling sites. With primary lines of communications down, authorities would have had few tools at their disposal, such as signs and door-to-door canvassers, to reach the reported more than 143,000 residents affected by the changing of 66 polling places across the city.

No residents at Ocean Village reported being visited by officials with directions to new polling places, and some residents suggested that the signs were posted by volunteers associated with Occupy Sandy, an all-volunteer relief effort associated with the broader Occupy movement that materialized in Sandy’s aftermath.

José, a volunteer associated with Occupy Sandy who gave only his first name, confirmed that he and some fellow volunteers had placed signs at the apartment complex the previous day. “We made signs yesterday, and we put signs up,” he said. On election day, he paced the sidewalk in front of the complex, advising residents of their new polling location.

A representative of the Queens County Board of Elections, citing the task of processing large numbers of affidavit ballots submitted by voters at alternate polling places, warned that comment from officials as to the timing and origin of poll relocation notices may not be possible for some time.

The New York City Board of Elections Executive Office, similarly burdened in the immediate wake of the election, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Residents who did become aware of the changes to their polling places generally indicated that they had voted or were planning to vote, though there were some exceptions. Christina Love, another Ocean Village resident, suggested that the combination of obstacles to voting might discourage some of her neighbors from voting.

“A lot of people won’t vote today,” she said, “because it’s too much effort to go.” She explained that many residents of the complex suffered from limited mobility and might be inhibited from traveling to a relocated polling station for that reason. “I’m going to try and make it there anyway,” Ms. Love said early election day morning.

The residents were not without options when it came to reaching the new polling locations. The MTA operated a free shuttle that transported residents from the Ocean Village apartment complex to their polling station and back. Many residents took advantage of the service, though some residents indicated that they were not aware that a shuttle was available.

Both Racks and Love, upon being informed of the service’s availability, eventually made their way onto  the shuttle bus to their polling stations. But the confusion did not end there – the shuttle took them to the polling place at Brian Piccolo Middle School on Nameoke St. instead of Far Rockaway High School, the location indicated on the signs hung in front of the apartment complex. After casting affidavit ballots they were unable to find the free shuttle bus for their return journey and instead boarded a city bus.

Still, other residents who successfully made it to the polls suggested that the obstacles to turnout weren’t so bad.  “Not everybody, but enough people knew,” said Ocean Village resident Rejelio Arnold. “There was a long line; it was going around the corner. So they got the word out.”