Is New Jersey in any state to vote tonight?

The legitimacy of the election result in New Jersey will be undermined as residents are still struggling to cope with the damage and devastation of SuperStorm Sandy.

A weary police officer sat in his squad car Monday evening, blocking passage to one of the Sayreville, New Jersey neighborhoods most severely devastated by SuperStorm Sandy. Parts of Sayreville, which sits along the Raritan River in Middlesex County, had long been accustomed to occasional flooding. But they never anticipated anything like what Sandy – not even technically a hurricane when it made landfall on Margate City, NJ, by the way - has wrought.

“Five of my colleagues lost everything, you know,” the exhausted officer – who asked not to be identified – sighed. “Their houses are totally unlivable; foundations washed out, structures corrupted.” I was not permitted to view the neighborhood, said the officer, on the ground that residents were angry about gawkers taking photos and leery of potential looters. There had been reports of miscreants swiping damaged items from  people’s front lawns, he revealed, and such people would blame the officer himself for allowing in further intruders. A homemade placard affixed to a street sign sternly warned all non-residents: “If you don't live here, stay out!!! Let us clean up. Don't take anything!!! We will call police on you.” He said Sayreville officers had just arrested several men for attempting to steal 80 gallons of gasoline from a boat that had gotten lodged in a marsh.

Garbage and debris were strewn all over town; powerlines and various infrastructure were still knocked to the ground; queues of cars clogged the main drag, because most traffic lights were offline. Assorted emergency sirens blinkered endlessly. A huge portion of the population had left town to stay with friends, relatives, or whomever.

And yet these people are supposed to vote today? That’s an absurd proposition. No election held in Sayreville – or, indeed, the whole of New Jersey – should be considered at all legitimate. I have spoken with so many people who are absolutely in no position to exercise their franchise.

Ida Pajack, who was walking outside her home in a retirement community, told me she did not know where to vote given all the flood damage, and probably would not even bother. And under normal circumstances, she always votes. “But it’s been terrible,” she said. “I’m 83, you know, and we can’t cook. Terrible.” She and her daughter, who is pregnant, remained without power or heat. (It has gotten extremely cold in the tri-state area). “She’s afraid for her little one, due in December,” Pajack told me.

Inside a darkened pizza parlor, George Dalla cooked free pies to be delivered to needy senior citizens like Pajack. Dalla, who lives in nearby Spotswood, of course had no power, and also said he would not be voting today (for Romney) due to storm-related problems. Stories like these are disturbingly common, and amount to disenfranchisement. A FEMA notice was posted in the parlor’s front window. Harry Kruschik, waiting for a pie, described his town’s vacancy thusly: “On our street, there are two neighbours on either side. All of them left.” His wife, Leona, said the powerplant she works at one town over still had no phone service. Neither planned on voting.

There was a disquieting mood about these Sayreville neighborhoods. The local right-wing talk radio station, NJ 101.5, had been hyping rumours of looting, which some residents cited as a source of anxiety. Many are now distrustful of outsiders.

“Everybody here is so discouraged about what happened,” said homeowner Ralph Bentecourt, sounding forlorn. He would have voted for Obama, but no longer plans to turn out. His entire first floor flooded, wrecking countless possessions; water-logged vinyl records sat on his back porch, looking weirdly out of place.

Bentecourt produced for me a letter dated 26 July, 2010 from Chase Home Finance LLC, which handles his mortgage, informing him that his property is “no longer located in a Special Flood Hazard Area,” and therefore he was no longer required to purchase flood insurance. So, understandably, he does not have flood insurance on his flood-damaged house. As you might imagine, voting is probably the furthest thing from Bentecourt’s (and his wife’s) mind. He is still clearing out debris. During the storm, his backyard resembled some kind of post-apocalyptic lake.

There was a sense in Sayreville that a wave of depression and stasis had only just begun to settle in. Expecting these recently-traumatised people, many of whom lost virtually everything, to prioritise voting today is simply cruel. And this is just one town. The situation across New Jersey is dire. Gasoline has been rationed; long lines to fill up are ubiquitous. The Port of Newark, a massively important trade hub, was damaged and shut down. Frigid temperatures pose additional danger. Hundreds of thousands still have no electricity.

Local officials are doing all they can under extraordinary circumstances. However: disenfranchisement is disenfranchisement. Though low turnout probably favours Romney, the outcome today will be illegitimate regardless of who wins.

A damaged house in Beach Haven, New Jersey. Photograph: Getty Images
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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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