Sandy Aftermath Keeping Some New Yorkers Away From the Polling Booth

Regardless of efforts to help those affected by the storm to vote, it is clear that Sandy has created enormous disruption and is leaving large numbers of people disenfranchised.

Dr. Ilana Zablozki-Amir does not have heat or electricity in the home she shares with her husband and three sons in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. Their basement was flooded with sewage, and the medical office she shares with her husband in nearby Sheepshead Bay was also ruined by floods carried in by Hurricane Sandy.

But Zablozki-Amir is committed to voting in Tuesday’s election. Dealing with the crisis “hasn’t put voting lower on my list of priorities, not at all,” she said.

When her husband voted early Tuesday, their regular polling place was open, though empty. “A lot of people won’t be able to vote because their houses were destroyed and they may be staying far away,” she said.

Living in a single-family private house and with relatives nearby to help, Zablozki-Amir’s family is in better shape than many of those in areas pummeled by Sandy. With freezing weather and another big storm on the way, the fact that hundreds of thousands of people still lacking heat and power is becoming a serious humanitarian crisis. For many, getting out to vote just isn’t possible.

“There is little doubt that people who have no electricity, no windows and no gas for their cars are far less likely to vote,” Stu Loeser, a political strategist who formerly worked as the spokesman for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, told Haaretz.

Those working on the ground agreed.

“When you are 80 years old and you live on the 17th floor and you don’t have elevator, you don’t have power, food or water, it is not possible to vote,” said Misha Nemirovsky, Russian community outreach director for the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

There are 234,000 people in Russian-speaking Jewish households in the New York area, according to the 2011 Jewish community study conducted by UJA-Federation of New York.

“Eighty percent of the voters [in the Russian-Jewish community] are elderly people,” said Nemirovsky. “They need food first of all. They need people to come to talk to them. They have medical problems, they need to go to the doctor. Some need drugs. It is a huge problem.”
Elected officials are trying to make it easier for those affected by the storm to vote by permitting people to cast their ballot at any polling place. In New Jersey, voters are abke to send in ballots via fax and email. Regardless of these efforts, it is clear that the storm has created enormous disruption and is leaving large numbers of people disenfranchised.

 “We don’t know where people are going to vote. That’s the direct impact. The reality is that polling places don’t exist” in areas hit hardest, said David Pollock, associate executive director of the New York JCRC.

Yet even this level of disenfranchisement isn’t expected to change the outcome of the presidential race, or contests for seats in Congress. Both New York and New Jersey are heavily Democratic and the electoral votes are expected to go to President Obama.

And unlike swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio that matter in the presidential race, “New York is not particularly a state that matters now,” said Ken Goldstein, a political analyst and president of Kantar Campaign Media Analysis Group.

“There’s not anything in doubt in NY or NJ.” The outcome of races for the House of Representatives is clear, he said. “There are no competitive House seats,” he said.

It is in local races, like for New York State Senate, where all representatives are being decided in this election, that the disruption may prove decisive.

One closely watched race is in the so-called “Super Jewish District,” which covers heavily Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhoods including Midwood, Kensington and Borough Park. Russian-born Jewish Republican incumbent David Storobin is being challenged by Orthodox Democrat and former city councilman Simcha Felder.

"Who controls the State Senate is actually important,” said Loeser, “and it’s something of a mess.”

The hurricane’s destructive legacy will likely have a long lasting effect on politics, as in many other aspects of life in the New York area.

It is presenting a setback to the political development of New York’s Russian Jewish community, said Nemirovsky, who also works as editor of the newspaper The Russian Forum. “The Russian community now is on their way to a political life. You have now Russian candidates and voters. But the conditions are against this.”