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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change