New weather threat to storm-weary voters

People leave a polling station after casting their ballots during the US presidential election at...
People leave a polling station after casting their ballots during the US presidential election at a polling station set up for those affected by Hurricane Sandy in Hoboken, New Jersey. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
Storm-weary residents across the New York and New Jersey area encountered confusion and long lines as they went to cast ballots in the presidential election today, and regional officials began scrambling to prepare for a new weather threat due as early tomorrow.

With the wounds of superstorm Sandy still far from healed and nearly 900,000 households and businesses still without power, officials began ordering closures and evacuations ahead of a powerful nor'easter that could lash the region with 95kmh winds and a mix of rain and snow as temperatures drop toward the freezing mark or below.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered all city parks and beaches closed at noon on Wednesday (local time) for at least 24 hours.

"We just don't need to send our first responders into the ocean to save someone who is being foolish," Bloomberg said.

In the town of Brick on the New Jersey shore, local officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for waterfront neighbourhoods. Residents of those areas must leave by 6 p.m. Tuesday, the town said. Several nearby lakes were drained to ease the flooding risk.

The new threat comes on the heels of Sandy, which killed 69 people in the Caribbean before it moved north, combined with a strong North Atlantic system, and roared ashore on the New Jersey coast on October 29 as a rare hybrid superstorm.

It killed at least 113 in the United States and Canada and knocked out power to millions of people while swamping seaside towns and inundating New York City's streets and subway tunnels.

Officials face unprecedented challenges for Election Day across the region, where polling stations were among the thousands of buildings damaged by Sandy eight days ago. New York and New Jersey took measures to ease the way for residents already coping with devastating flood damage, power outages and widespread fuel shortages.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said New Yorkers would be able to vote at any polling place by presenting an affidavit. In New Jersey, those affected by Sandy will be designated as overseas voters, allowing them to cast ballots by fax or email.

Cuomo's order appeared to create confusion among poll workers, with paper ballots and affidavits in some cases being distributed even to voters who arrived at their regular polling place as opposed to only those whose assigned voting station was elsewhere.

Long lines at polling stations were a common scene around the region.

At a voting place in Rockaway Park, a hard-hit beachfront neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, Sharon Brown was so determined to cast her vote that she returned to her flooded home the night before in order to be within walking distance of what she believed to be her voting precinct.

"Living through that storm, watching that water come up, it really makes you think you have to vote," Brown said as she waited in line in the unheated tent that served as the voting station for several precincts.

When she got to the head of the line though, Brown learned that she had come to the wrong place after all. Still, as she fretted about having enough gas to get to her assigned location and to where she is living temporarily in Brooklyn, she opted to cast a ballot by affidavit, as allowed under Cuomo's order.

In Bay Head, New Jersey, most residents had to flee inland for shelter after Sandy wrecked their exclusive seaside community but many were returning Tuesday so they could vote. Some drove for two hours to get to the firehouse polling station.

"We're very patriotic in this town," said longtime resident Joanne Pehlivanian. "We're going to vote no matter what."

She said the turnout of 170 by mid-morning indicated the usual 400 to 500 people would vote despite the extraordinary hardships.

While President Barack Obama was expected to win easily in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the states most affected by Sandy, the storm could spotlight the arcane Electoral College system that decides the presidency.

One possibility is that low voter turnout in storm-ravaged states could allow Republican challenger Mitt Romney to win the popular vote even if Obama wins the state-by-state Electoral College race.

Romney and Obama are virtually tied in pre-election polls.

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