TRENTON, N.J. – New Jersey election officials decided Tuesday to give some voters displaced by last week's storm an extra three days to cast election ballots as complications emerged in a last-minute provision to offer those hit hard by the storm more voting options.
The decision was announced Tuesday as some county election offices were swamped with requests for email ballots.
"It has become apparent that the County Clerks are receiving applications at a rate that outpaces their capacity to process them without an extension of the current schedule," Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who is also New Jersey's secretary of state, said in a directive she issued Tuesday.
The email option is available only to voters displaced by the storm and who are willing to give up their right to a private ballot. Voters still must request ballots by 5 p.m. Tuesday to take advantage of the voting option.
The county election offices will now have until noon Friday to process the applications, and the voters will have to fax or email their ballots by 8 p.m. Friday.
In Hudson County alone, there were about 5,000 requests for the unusual sort of ballot by the deadline at 5 p.m. Tuesday, said Deputy County Clerk Janet Larwa.
"It's a different kind of nuts," she said.
Guadagno, who is also New Jersey's secretary of state, had given displaced voters additional options if they could not get to their regular polling places: They could vote by email or fax, receive a provisional ballot at any New Jersey polling place, or vote in person at county clerk's offices, which remained open through the weekend.
Those who chose to go to polling places in other parts of the state were to be given slimmed-down ballots with only the presidential and U.S. Senate races and two statewide referendum questions. They would not be able to vote in U.S. House, county, local and school board elections.
It appears that several thousand voters around the state are attempting to use the electronic ballots -- a small number in a state where 3 million ballots or more could be cast. But verifying the voters' eligibility can be laborious for election workers, especially when they're carrying out their regular duties.
Officials in Bergen County said they had received well over 1,000 applications for the email or fax ballots. And in Atlantic County, there were more than 300 requests. Numbers were not available from other counties.
The email complications come in addition to garden-variety voting problems, such as people who believed they were registered but have found they're not, and malfunctioning voting machines. There have been scattered reports of displaced voters being denied provisional ballots by poll workers.
Voting security experts say emailed and faxed ballots are a system vulnerable to fraud. In New Jersey, it's usually allowed only for residents living overseas and members of the military. And they must also mail in paper backup copies that election officials can use for verification.
On Monday, even as voting rights advocates asked the state to clarify that the paper backups must be sent, a spokesman for Guadagno was saying that because of the extreme emergency, they need not be in this case. But the spokesman, Ernest Landante, said Monday evening that voters must indeed mail in paper ballots as well.
Penny Venetis, who runs a constitutional law clinic at Rutgers University's Newark law school, said the late details on how to vote by email would lead only to more confusion. She said she applauded the state's effort to make sure voters could participate, but said she believed Guadagno did not have the legal authority to go as far as she did.
She said Tuesday that email voting problems were no surprise. "This is completely crazy," she said. "And it's utterly predictable."
Meanwhile, the ACLU asked a judge to make sure that people in Essex County who were eligible for email ballots would get them.
Essex County election officials could not be reached for comment immediately.