Displaced victims of the storm-ravaged New Jersey coastline faced a new challenge on Tuesday, as their attempts to vote in person, by email, and by fax failed.
New Jersey, at the last minute and prompted by the displacement of residents from superstorm Sandy, was the first state to ever allow electronic voting for a significant portion of its population. Other states have allowed some electronic voting for military members or overseas residents in the past.
The effort in New Jersey on Tuesday, however, showed the difficulties of maintaining an orderly and efficient election when phone lines and inboxes are overwhelmed with voter requests.
"This is an unprecedented disaster," Essex County clerk Chris Durkin told the Montclair Times. "People will be disenfranchised because of this unprecedented disaster."
Election officials around the state were bombarded by requests from voters to vote electronically. Each request took staffers up to 15 minutes to process as they received the email or fax request, checked the voter registration lists for matching identities, and completed paperwork before emailing a ballot to the voter.
In Hudson County, in northern New Jersey, the county clerk had received more than 2,000 requests for email ballots by Tuesday morning, at which point they stopped processing requests altogether.
Essex County voters were met with busy signals on phone and fax lines, as well as email rejections from full inboxes, as they tried to submit requests to receive electronic ballots, according to the clerk's office.
"The state didn't give us enough time to prepare," Morris County Clerk Joan Bramhall told NJ.com.
Jessica Fama, 23, of Tinton Falls, said she was frustrated with the electronic ballot because of the delayed response from officials when she sent in her vote.
"They didn't send any kind of confirmation e-mail that even the ballot was received which makes me feel like my vote might not have counted. I don't know if my vote was valid because I didn't get any sort of confirmation," Fama said.
Fama applied for the electronic ballot on Saturday, and received it on Sunday. She then submitted her vote Monday, but still has not received confirmation from election officials that they received her ballot.
"I don't know if my vote did or didn't count. I tried, and I was given another option which was nice but I guess I will never know if my vote did or didn't count," she said.
Carl Block, the county administrator for Ocean County, one of the hardest-hit regions of the state, said he expected the electronic voting difficulties to affect fewer than 50,000 voters in the state, and that the number would not prevent the state being called in the national election Tuesday night.
Gov. Chris Christie enacted email voting Saturday, in the aftermath of Sandy, which destroyed thousands of homes along the Jersey Shore and displaced thousands of New Jersey residents, along with disrupting power to about 800 polling sites.
"Hundreds of voters are out of state, displaced, and may not be able to use email or fax, partly because the counties are overwhelmed with the response to this option. Part of it is that people are trying to fax their applications in and can't get through," said Jeanne Locicero, spokeswoman for the ACLU in New Jersey.
The ACLU went to court twice Tuesday on behalf of New Jersey voters, the first time to ask for an extension to the deadline to submit emailed ballots, and the second time to request that voters be allowed to use a federal absentee ballot available as a PDF online.
The state's Division of Election issued a ruling at 2 p.m. extending the deadline for voters to submit email ballots until 8 p.m. on Friday.
A judge in Essex County denied the ACLU's request to let voters use the federal absentee ballot.
Catherine Weiss, chair of the Lowenstein Center for Public Interest, was in charge of a hotline for the voting rights group Election Protection in New Jersey on Tuesday.
"There is a big concern that people may not bother to vote if the election is called anytime before they cast their vote," Weiss told ABC News, noting that they had never seen an extension for an emergency like the one enacted in New Jersey.
"What is disenfranchising people is that the storm caused such incredible disruption in people's lives that we have people trying to vote by alternative systems all over the state," she said. "Given the amount of damage that polling places suffered, the level of disruption was so intense, it is a mistake to suggest this directive was launched without adequate preparation."