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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle