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Despite long lines and unconventional polling places, Sandy-hit communities vote

David Friedman / NBC News

With debris from Superstorm Sandy piled up outside, Breezy Point residents enter their polling place at St. Genevieve Catholic Church on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.

BREEZY POINT, N.Y., Updated at 8:00 p.m. ET -- Many people living in communities devastated by Superstorm Sandy broke off from their cleanups to vote Tuesday in the presidential election, with some casting their ballots by flashlight, in tents or mobile vans. Some voters faced long lines, while others experienced glitches with New Jersey’s email voting system

Election officials in New Jersey and New York made special provisions for voters whose homes were damaged or destroyed after Sandy pounded the Northeast, leaving many homeless and without gas to fuel their cars, and polling stations without power. Some 630,000 people and businesses in the two states, the bulk in New Jersey, still don’t have electricity, according to officials and The Associated Press.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed people in the disaster areas to cast a provisional vote at any polling station they could get to, while in New Jersey, they could do so by email or by hitching a ride with troops or aid groups to the voting booths, according to NBC New York.

Sixty of the city’s 1,350 polling locations could not be used and voters were directed to others; fewer than 100 polling places didn’t have power in New Jersey, the TV station reported.

Some voters had to fill out paper ballots in New Jersey since there was no power for the voting machines, but polling stations from one of the state’s disaster areas, Monmouth County, reported no major issues, The Star-Ledger reported.

But officials had to extend the deadline for New Jersey's email voting to Friday at 8 p.m. due to problems with the online system. "It has become apparent that County Clerks are receiving applications at a rate that outpaces their capacity to process them without an extension," Lt. Gov. Kim Guadango said.

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The decision came after the American Civil Liberties Union filed an emergency petition in state superior court asking that voters be allowed to cast a federal absentee ballot due to “overwhelming” troubles with it statewide, said Katie Wang, an ACLU spokeswoman.

"Everyone should find the time to vote today, but the only people who should be applying for their ballots online are voters affected by the storm. Everyone else, get your butt up and go to your polling place like normal," New Gov. Chris Christie said, according to The Star-Ledger.

Nonetheless, voters in the stricken areas made it to makeshift polls, though temperatures across the Northeast have been dipping into the low 30s, and nearly one million homes and businesses remained without power as of Tuesday morning.

Kieran Burke temporarily halted the search for his wife’s engagement ring -- a day after firefighters found her wedding ring -- to vote at St. Genevieve’s Catholic Church, the replacement polling site just down the road from Breezy Point, N.Y., where the community’s 2,200 homes were either destroyed by fire or damaged by flooding.

“The world isn’t going to stop because of what happened here, and if we expect to get on our feet we have to vote for the people we think are going to best represent us,” said Burke, a 40-year-old fire marshal, who lost his home in the fire triggered by Sandy. “What we have is either gone or needs attention. But going forward, you know, if we just ignore this process, then you really can’t complain about what the outcome is.”

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Outside of the church-turned polling station -- where sanitation workers had cleared large piles of household items, such as chairs and a child's rocking horse -- others agreed about the importance of voting.

David Friedman / NBC News

Michele Nagel, Tom Frank and their daughter Samantha Nagel Frank, after voting on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, at St. Genevieve Church in the Roxbury neighborhood of Breezy Point, N.Y.

“Voting is the first step toward recovery,” said Tom Frank, 51, who is unemployed and came with his partner Michele Nagel and their three-year-old daughter, Samantha, to vote. “From the storm and then economically ... this is moving forward,” he added.

“The first thing we’re doing today is taking care of this and then the mess,” chimed in Nagel, a director of youth programs at the Fashion Institute of Technology, laughing.

On their minds were “the ability to rebuild quickly and not have that interference from the city or any of the government offices that might be interested in poking their nose in around here,” she said. “We want to build our community the way that it was.”

Though lines were short in this community in southern Queens, they were long elsewhere. On his Twitter account, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “Be patient with lines at voting sites – it’s worth the wait to be part of the process.”

John Makely / NBC News

Nikolas Policastro, 20, voting for the first time on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. He had to do so on a 38-foot mobile voting vehicle hired by the Ocean County Board of Elections to help out after Superstorm Sandy devastated the area. He voted while the vehicle was stationed in Little Egg Harbor, N.J.

Nikolas Policastro, 20, voted at a 38-foot mobile polling station in Ocean County, N.J. "I feel it's important to have a voice. Everyone can complain that the president and Congress aren't doing a good job, but if you don't vote, then you don't have a say," he said.

One displaced voter heads to the polls in New Jersey town devastated by Sandy

More than 25,000 registered voters were either displaced or affected by Sandy in Ocean County, said George Gilmore, chairman of the Ocean County Board of Elections.

“We're trying to reach them,” he said. “If we can get to even 1,000 or two of them with the mobile voting van, then it is a success."

"It feels extra important today because you have the opportunity to influence the state of things right now, which is a disaster," Renee Kearney of Point Pleasant Beach, a 41-year-old project manager for an information technology company, told NBC New York.

But for some, the cleanup continued unabated and voting was not a top priority.

In Breezy Point, many residents were clearing out their homes and were upset about the lack of help being provided by the American Red Cross or other government agencies. Much of the cleanup there, like elsewhere, is left up to the home owners and their friends.

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Richard Mele, a 68-year-old retired New York City firefighter, was pumping out the water from his flooded basement to try and salvage any keepsakes ahead of the nor’easter. He said he would vote on the way out later Tuesday.

“We’ve got a lot more important things to worry about, you know,” he said, as a generator hummed in the background and while standing in front of a table bearing rare wooden, handmade fishing lures. “This is my whole life here, you know what I’m saying. My house is gone.”

David Friedman / NBC News

Breezy Point resident Richard Mele, 68, looks over some fishing tackle he salvaged from his flooded home on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Breezy Point, N.Y. He said voting was not his top priority.

The water would re-enter his basement on Wednesday, he added. “It’s going to rain three inches, it’s going right in my basement.”

“When it rains it pours,” he said. “We’re down and it’s just going to keep kicking us.”

NBC News' John Makely, Bob Sullivan, Michael Isikoff, Ron Allen, Talesha Reynolds and NBC New York contributed to this report.

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