A bilingual polling place worker, left, assists an elderly couple as they look over a sample ballot near a voting booth at Hoboken City Hall on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. Gov. Chris Christie signed a declaration allowing people displaced by Sandy to vote in the general election at any polling place. However, such voters were not allowed to vote in local elections. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

New Jersey extends email voting deadline for displaced Sandy voters

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New Jersey has filed an emergency petition in a state superior court asking that voters in the state be allowed to cast a federal absentee ballot as a result of “overwhelming” problems with the email voting system set up for those displaced by Hurricane Sandy, an ACLU spokeswoman tells NBC News.

A civil rights lawyer had previously described the email voting problems in the state as a “catastrophe.”

Katie Wang, a spokeswoman for the ACLU in New Jersey, said the group’s lawyers are currently seeking an emergency hearing in Superior Court in Essex County this afternoon. The ACLU and other groups were getting phone calls Tuesday from voters who who were unable to download ballots from county election websites. “It’s a statewide problem,” she said.

The group wants a state judge to permit displaced Sandy voters to use, as an alternative, a federal absentee ballot available for military and overseas voters, which can be downloaded off a federal website, fvap.gov. It permits voters to cast ballots for president and other federal offices.

“I would lean more towards catastrophe,” Michael Harper, the clerk of the Hudson County Board of Elections, told NBC News’ Talesha Reynolds when asked how serious email voting problems are in his county. County clerks are inundated for requests for email ballots, having received about 3,000 so far. ” The numbers are overwhelming,” he said.

Harper said that, while its good people are using the email system, it is unprecedented and it was “thrown upon us at the last-minute.”

RELATED: Poll problems cropping up around US

Janet Larwa, the Deputy Clerk at the Hudson County Clerk’s office said the office is indeed overwhelmed. The issue is that some people making requests were not displaced by Hurricane Sandy– and should not be using the email system.

The state over the weekend announced it would allow voters displaced by the storm to download ballots off county elections websites and email or fax them in. But Governor Chris Christie earlier today admonished voters not to vote by email as a matter of convenience. The Hudson County clerk’s office is calling some voters and responding to emails telling them to vote at their proper location.

They are also hoping the press will help get the word out that electronic voting is for those who cannot get to their usual polling stations.

In an earlier conference call with reporters, Barbara Arnwine, of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, told reporters about New Jersey’s email voting system, “in one word, catastrophe.” She said there were reports that computer servers in some counties had crashed from so many people trying to download ballots.

Larwa said servers in Hudson had not crashed, but that one computer did freeze and the “computer guy fixed in 5 minutes.”

WNBC reports that New Jersey election officials have extended the deadline for clerks to process e-mail voting applications. Now clerks can actually send displaced voters their ballots tomorrow — and until noon Friday, and as long as voters email or fax those ballots in by 8 p.m. Friday, the votes will count.

This step could make the state vulnerable to lawsuits.

It’s a result, says the Secretary of State, of the “remarkable” response to his plan to allow displaced voters to be treated like overseas voters — requesting a ballot by e-mail and returning it that way. He says county clerks “are receiving applications at a rate that outpaces the capacity to process them.”

This raises some interesting legal questions. A federal law requires all states to choose their presidential electors the same day. But another law says if a state fails to do that, then its legislature determines how its presidential elections are determined.

Some legal experts say they believe while New Jersey may be in technical violations of federal laws if it does this, it’s Congress that makes the ultimate decision about whether to accept a state’s electoral votes. And they doubt that Congress would fail to count the votes of a state brought to its knees by the storm.

In the end, a New Jersey judge rejected the emergency petition by the New Jersey ACLU to direct the state to permit voters displaced by Hurricane Sandy to cast federal write-in absentee ballots.

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