Indifference is Mutual: Low Voter Turnout After Sandy

Snow after floods, Staten Island in freezing winter.

No heat, no power, no water, no subway, no Internet, no phone signal, no time, no one came to help.  No surprise that voter turnout dropped in NY, where only 2.1 million people voted Tuesday, compared with 2.6 million in 2008, or about 49 percent of those eligible, compared with 59 percent four years ago, according to the Board of Elections.

A number of factors could have contributed to the low voter turnout. Sandy seems to be easily the first one to blame for stopping New Yorkers from casting their ballots, however, the reasons why 51 percent of New Yorkers did not vote do vary. Asked if it was because of the aftermath, “No!” blurted out David Sylvester, a Staten Island resident whose house has been burned to ground when a power line shorted out during the storm

“I have all the things that are a little bit more important (than voting),” said Sylvester. “They are both BSes. Ain’t gonna do good stuff for me. Their interest is not at us. Their interest is them. How much money they can make. That’s all it is. You think those men would come down here look at my house? Those men never come down here.”

No one from government came, but reporters did. As one of the hardest-hit Staten Islanders, Sylvester has been interviewed by CNN, NBC, and NYT. “They interviewed me, but didn’t put it on TV,” Sylvester said. Sylvester’s name and a one-sentence quote showed up on page A1 of NYT’s November 3 paper. After that, still, nobody came.

When it makes no difference either way, indifference comes as no surprise. “I don’t vote,” said Steven Adamor, a Coney Islander, “I don’t believe this. I know already who is gonna be president.”

Some others, however, are afraid that this indifference will make all the difference. Remona J, a Coney Islander voter walked with a cane after ankle fracture to the polling station, “It’s important to vote. You have to, you know, you can’t leave it up to people just think that someone is gonna be in charge for you. You have to make sure that the person you choose or select is going to be the person that represents who you are and what you are trying to get out of the government.”

For enthusiastic voters like Remona, voting after Sandy turned out to be a frustrating endeavor. In spite of the efforts made by both parties to make voting more accessible and easier, confusion over locations and difficulty of commute had poured cold water on their enthusiasm.

On Sunday, two days before the Election, the Board of Elections announced that 66 poll sites were relocated or combined across the five boroughs due to the damage.  It urged NY voters to visit the poll site locator on “our website or through our smartphone application” to verify the poll site location. To many people who live in the power outage zone, this announcement is nothing but an ironic paradox. James Boyle, who lives on 1151 Brighton Beach Ave, one of the hardest hit areas in Coney Island, said he wanted to vote but had no idea where to go. “I want to vote for Obama,” he said, “But I don’t know. There’s nowhere to vote.”

Prado Santiago, a resident in midland beach, Staten Island said, “I have no power, no news, I don’t know what’s going on in this world for two weeks.”

Considerately, Governor Cuomo signed an Executive Order on Monday night allowing any voter who is registered in a federally-declared disaster county to vote at any poll site in NY, regardless of where they are registered. Yet this executive order wasn’t fully executed, at least when it came to Marie Souffrant’s case. “I was told that I can vote anyplace but once I was there they told me I couldn’t vote there because there’s no affidavit. ” Souffrant walked more than 20 blocks from West24 street in Brooklyn to 3000 West 1st, the new polling location where three polls of Coney Island have been relocated and combined to.

However, more frustrating was the long wait before they could cast their ballot. “What a mess!” announced Yihong Li, a Chinese translator working at P.S 370 poll site in Coney Island shaking her head at the chaotic situation in the polling room. Many voters standing in the line for hours still had no electricity and heat.

Nov.9, a house uses generator during power outage in Midland Beach, Staten Island

As of Friday, according to the up-to-date Sandy Progress Report released by New York City Housing Authority, about 7,013 people were still living in the darkness and 19,300 without heat. The building Victor J Newby supervised on 1st Brighton Street was one of them. “My hands are tight because I have everybody here,” Newby explained that he wouldn’t vote on  Election Day. “I’m not gonna vote today because I have no time. I got 260 families without  water. I don’t know what they gonna do. I just want to restore them back to where they start off.”

For them, and the rest of the more than 40,000 people who have been displaced, knowing when life can come back to normal is a bigger concern than who is the president.