Hurricane Sandy swept through the East Coast on Monday, leaving a devastating trail of flooding, millions of power outages, and fatalities. Now, some have begun to wonder whether those public safety problems could affect Election Day, which is just one week away.
The storm has already curtailed or altered early voting in nearly half a dozen states along the Eastern Seaboard. With public officials estimating it could take days, if not weeks, to recover from the storm damage: could Election Day actually be moved back from November 6?
The short answer is it is possible, but very unlikely to happen.
The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the authority to set the date of presidential and congressional elections. Under this power, Congress in 1845 selected the Tuesday immediately following the first Monday in November during election years as Election Day, according to a 2004 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. Congressional elections have been held on that date ever since 1872.
While there is no federal law on the book that allows Congress to postpone elections, they could theoretically reverse the original statute that established election day. But it is highly unlikely that Congress would pass such a law under these circumstances.
Individual states have the authority to administer the elections and some states have laws that allow them to push back Election Day. But the laws vary from state to state.
Officials in Virginia -- which has more than 182,000 power outages -- told The Washington Post that there is no provision in the commonwealth's code that allows the election to be delayed. New Jersey, the site of Sandy's landfall where 2.4 million customers are without power, also does not have an emergency election statute. But Maryland, also affected by Sandy, has a provision in state law that allows an election to be pushed back, as Slate reported. New York is allowed to hold an extra day of voting only under very limited circumstances: when less than 25 percent of eligible voters are actually allowed to vote.
In some extreme cases, state and local elections have been pushed back. Primary contests in New York were suspended on Sept. 11, 2001, though the CRS notes that a congressional primary in Massachusetts continued that day without a drop in turnout despite the terrorist attacks.
But the CRS report makes it clear that states' decision to postpone a presidential election day would be unprecedented in history and could cause conflict between states (in the case of Sandy, between states affected by the storm and states that are not).
"Problems and disruptions in one State may not necessarily or predictably affect the viability of the results in another," it says.
That does not mean Election Day will go off without a hitch. New York has said polling places could be moved to ensure that voting sites all have power. And public officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, have warned of longer than usual lines on Election Day.
Meanwhile, many public officials in affected areas say that they are more focused on rescue and recovery efforts rather than the election.
"I don't give a damn about Election Day," as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put it Tuesday in his typically blunt manner. "This administration, at the moment, could give a damn less about Election Day."
Those hoping to cast early ballots on Tuesday were out of luck in several states along the East Coast.