Nov 7, 2012

After the storm, how New Yorkers got out to vote

It was bitterly cold, and their neighbourhoods were still recovering from superstorm Sandy, but New Yorkers weren't going to be stopped from voting. Freelance journalist Sally Davies joined them.

New York voters

It was a face-puckering 2 degrees at Coney Island this morning, one of New York's beachside neighbourhoods hit hard by hurricane Sandy. Not even choosing the leader of the free world was going to get in the way of the clean-up -- especially not with another, thankfully smaller, storm due to strike on Wednesday night. Tow-trucks lined boulevards to haul fleets of ruined cars, striped with mud-marks like geological strata from the rising storm waters. Musty smells wafted from waterlogged basements, from which shop owners jettisoned useless electronics. The storm's aftermath seemed to deter some voters. "It's super slow today," said Erica Omundsen, a 38-year-old volunteer at a Coney Island polling booth, whose organisation offers information to help voters cast their ballots. "There's been some confusion with locations; I don't think the city's been very good at getting the word out." Officials echoed her concerns at Public School 100, where a substitute polling station had been set up in the gym to replace a flooded site further east. "We're being tortured," said poll worker Sarah Podilski, as she rifled through sheafs of voters' registration details. "People around here don't have power or telephones, so they won't know where to go. It's quite a trek to get here, and the school's not wheelchair accessible. There are lots of seniors who just won't vote." As a concession to Sandy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order on Monday, allowing displaced hurricane victims to cast their ballot at any location rather than just the site at which they were registered. But the move bred uncertainty, with voters throughout the city interpreting the governor's actions as giving them license to vote where they pleased. "You're allowed to vote for the president and the Senate, but your vote for Congress won't count unless you're from an evacuation zone," an official explained to a frustrated young mother at a polling station in the Bronx. Here, in a sprawling borough of 1.4 million people to the north of Manhattan, a bad turnout was not the problem. The queue snaked out the door of the Bronx County Clerk's office, a pale stone building incongruously adorned with neoclassical friezes in a neighbourhood that is one of the poorest in the country. The hall was abuzz with a largely African-American crowd, colouring in the circles next to candidates' names and feeding them through banks of black scanning machines that digitised their votes. Figures from frescoes depicting the American war of independence looked on.
"We need a change, we need a good economy. Do you even need to ask? Of course, I voted for Romney."
"Lines are a good sign for a certain kind of candidate," said José Enrique Serrano, the district's Democratic congressman in the House of Representatives, as he waited to cast his ballot. "I've never seen anything like this, even in 2008." Long-time poll workers concurred. A question that has been hanging over the race is whether President Obama can rally the sort of enthusiasm among key constituencies -- African-Americans, Latinos and young voters -- that carried him to the White House four years ago. New York City and its surrounds are a Democratic bastion, but mobilisation in the outer boroughs may be a sign of what happened elsewhere. (Indeed, by 11.30pm in New York, the major US television networks had called the race for Obama.) "I'm concerned about women's issues, immigration and gay rights -- so I voted for Obama," said Pamela Acquino, the 23 year-old-daughter of Dominican immigrants, outside a different polling station in the South Bronx. Nadiyah Wright, a 35-year-old African American former childcare worker, did the same. "We don't vote for Obama because he's black. We vote for him because he passed welfare reform, because he gave us a stimulus," she said. She was nonplussed by Romney's derision of the 47% of Americans who don't pay taxes and don't work, exposed in a secret video several weeks ago. Wright was employed until her boss moved to New Jersey; she is currently in emergency housing because city officials discovered lead in her home. Not everyone is a cheerleader for the president, however. Some of his detractors were to be found at Public School 6, a polling station on the Upper East Side in an elegant neighbourhood of high-end retail stores just steps from Central Park. The school had taken the opportunity of an election to host a bake sale, with cookies and brownies stacked invitingly in baskets. The crowd was significantly older and whiter. "We need a change, we need a good economy," said a middle-aged blonde woman in a long tan overcoat, with tapered diamond earrings. "Do you even need to ask? Of course, I voted for Romney."

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