Five days after Hurricane Sandy demolished the Eastern Seaboard on Oct. 29, 2012, and left the state of New Jersey in particularly horrific disarray, an exhausted Christopher Durkin listened in on a conference call while sitting in his black 2010 Chevy Malibu, charging his cell phone outside his darkened, juice-less home. Durkin was one of 21 county clerks who had been urged to join the hastily arranged call by Robert Giles, the state’s director of elections, who had promised an important announcement. Giles gave many of them a preview of what the coming days would be like, shortly before the lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, came on the line. “Put your phones on mute,” he said, according to several clerks on the call. “The lieutenant governor will not entertain questions.” The week, no doubt, had been grueling for all. And it was about to get even more challenging. Guadagno, in her dual role as the New Jersey secretary of state, spent her few minutes on the line rewriting the rules for the Nov. 6 general election, which was only three days away. She had, in those traumatic days after the storm, made a number of emergency changes to voting procedures. Because some 900 of the state’s 3,500 polling places had been destroyed or otherwise rendered unusable as of Friday, Nov. 2, clerks’ offices around the state were open for long hours all weekend to give residents a chance to vote in person using absentee ballots, a practice known in New Jersey as “vote by mail.” Another option was for voters to visit any polling place on Election Day and vote in the federal races — president and U.S. Senate — via provisional ballots, which would be sent to their county and tallied if the local board of elections decided the voter was properly registered and hadn’t already cast a ballot. Similar measures were taken in New York and Connecticut, states that had also suffered major damage that made the coming election a logistical nightmare.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, stands with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, second left, near destroyed homes along the Atlantic Ocean Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, in Manoloking, N.J. Mel Evans / 2012
But New Jersey would go one dramatic, unprecedented step further. Guadagno told the clerks that she had just issued an emergency order granting any registered voters displaced by Sandy — in other words, hundreds of thousands of individuals — the ability to cast their votes via email or fax.
With all those phones on mute, Durkin, the clerk of Essex County, said the only shocked gasp he could hear was his own. “Are you kidding me?” he said to nobody. Later, recalling the moment, he says, “I desperately wanted more people to cast ballots, but this was a bridge too far.”
Another clerk, Joanne Rajoppi of Union County, was not only shocked, but angry, too. “If ever there was a time to be taking questions, that was it,” she says. “I was very upset, because no one asked the clerks. No one asked the clerks, ‘Can you do this? Do you have the resources to do this? Do you have the staff to do this?’ There was no indication on their part that they wanted to hear from us.”