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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.