Weather dictated the choice of a date for Election Day in America.  The first Tuesday after the first Monday in November placed the election after the labor of the harvest had been completed and before the snows would block access to the polls.  However, as New Jersey voters, such as myself, realized this year, that date also places the election in hurricane season.  With thousands of people displaces, polling locations flooded and without power and an entire state with political whiplash resulting from their Republican governor lavishing praise on President Obama, voting in New Jersey was a confused affair.  This week’s New Yorker cover says it better than I ever could.[1]

Secretary of State Kim Guadagno issued five directives in the aftermath of the Hurricane to make voting easier.  These measures included allowing displaced voters to cast provisional ballots at any polling place in the state and to request and submit ballots by email or fax.  The latter of these predictably caused massive consternation among those worried about the possibility of voter fraud, and made many who are not generally concerned with voter fraud newly worried.  ArsTechnica[2] and Wired[3] both ran articles on the dangers of e-voting.  Wired even pointed out that Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin, who asked voters to send applications to his personal Hotmail address uses his mother’s maiden name as his security question for that account.

In addition to the security concerns, there were numerous technical problems that resulted in many voters (like myself[4]) never receiving an email ballot, despite applying long in advance of the 5pm deadline on election day.  In response to this, the ACLU filed suit and obtained an order forcing County Clerks to send ballots to voters who can prove they attempted to request ballots before the deadline but met with technical problems.[5]  However, the Judge refused to order the Board of Elections to allow displaced voters to use the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot, the voting method reserved for active duty military members and citizens abroad.

Thankfully, the outcome of the Presidential election was not hinging on a couple thousand of ballots in New Jersey.  What this all shows us is that serious thought needs to be put into how elections will respond in the face of catastrophe.  I am not sure that I have any clear ideas on what a more disaster-resilient voting system would look like.  Early voting is certainly one great option that needs to be expanded.[6]  But that alone is not enough, for many will always want to go to the polls on election day (I hope). E-Voting, on the other hand, is almost certainly not viable, and will not be for many years.  Maybe states could authorize voting with the same ballet but in another state.

As the planet heats up, these sort of problems are going to become more and more likely.  As New York Governor Cuomo said after Sandy, “We have a 100 year flood every two years now.”  Furthermore, Governor Cuomo pointed out that New York is not used to dealing with, nor designed to be resistant to, floods.   More and more local governments will have to respond to natural disasters of types and intensities that had been heretofore unknown.   All in all, I think New Jersey did an admirable job attempting to make sure everyone had the chance to exercise their right to vote.  However, no right as sacred as the vote should be dependent upon ad hoc scrambling of state officials.   Every state, when fixing the long lines to vote, which President Obama called for in his victory speech, needs to address the resiliency of its voting process and its contingency plans for ensuring the vote in times of crisis.

[4] I also did not receive my traditional absentee ballot until the day after election day, despite applying far in advance of the deadline, presumably also because of the storm.

[6] One New Jersey state legislator has already put forward early voting reforms in light of the trouble.