Post-Sandy: State’s extension of voting deadline draws mixed response

TRENTON – The head of the N.J. League of Women Voters believes state elections officials responded to an extraordinary voting situation this week with extraordinary measures.

Acknowledging that hindsight is always 20/20, League Executive Director Kerry Margaret Butch said, however, there are lessons that can be learned if a situation similar to Hurricane Sandy-related power outages and flooding occur again.

“The original directives they came out with were creative,’’ she said Thursday, “but in practice they couldn’t accomplish it.”

The state’s decision to extend voting by email or fax to people displaced by Sandy ended up swamping county clerks’ offices, Butch said.

Fax machines were busy, email messages bounced back to senders, and phone lines were jammed.

Approximately half a million such votes remain uncounted, but state officials have said they won’t know the final number possibly until next week.

 Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno had moved the deadline for emailed and faxed ballots to be returned to Friday at 8 p.m.

At the League, Butch said, they will prepare a report as they always do regarding voting, and Butch said she is fairly confident the state will plan better for next time.

“I feel that the state will put in place a pretty tight emergency plan for voting as a result of this,’’ she said. “If this is the route we’re going to take, there are going to have to be more open lines” at elections offices.

Butch said that it would be a huge help if every municipality, in addition to every clerk’s office, had more than one phone line open, or even identified specific people to answer phones.

“Our goal is to make sure that every vote that is cast is counted,’’ Butch said. “We were excited when provisional ballots were allowed.”

“I know the job those guys did (at the state), and they honestly want to give those people every opportunity to have their vote counted.”

However, not everyone was pleased by the lieutenant governor’s actions.

State Sen. Michael Doherty, (R-23), Washington Township, criticized the decision, and said she overstepped her bounds of authority.

Doherty cited constitutional directives to conduct the federal election on a single day, and said that any change to that would have necessitated legislative action signed by the governor.

Doherty said on Election Day it is in precisely times of crisis that citizens must be extra vigilant concerning the Constitution.

Following up on that Thursday, he reiterated that the Executive branch did not consult with the Legislative branch before making the decision to extend voting.

“I called the lieutenant governor and she still has not called me back,’’ Doherty said. “It would not have been a problem to call the Legislature into emergency session. That’s why the Legislature exists. The governor, under our system, cannot make a law all by himself.

“We could have easily been called into emergency session and changed the law. At least it would have respected the Constitution.

“Maybe someone in the Legislature would have had a suggestion to make the thing go more smoothly. Maybe someone in the Legislature would have had an idea.”

He emphasized he wants people to have the opportunity to vote, but that extraordinary events and emergencies don’t mean the Constitution can be ignored.

By way of example, Doherty pointed to the closely contested 16th District Assembly race in which Democratic challenger Marie Corfield has not conceded to incumbent Republican Donna Simon.

Simon holds a slim lead, but if late votes change the outcome, then you can expect legal challenges, Doherty explained.

Post-Sandy: State’s extension of voting deadline draws mixed response