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
Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.