Could Sandy Push Back Election Day?

It's unlikely, but early and regular voting could be harder in affected states.

October 30, 2012, 11:22 AM

Oct. 30, 2012— -- 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.

Election Day

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."

Early Voting

Those hoping to cast early ballots on Tuesday were out of luck in several states along the East Coast.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a declaration stating that "The current State of Emergency will interfere with the early voting that is scheduled to take place by law from Saturday, October 27, 2012 through Thursday, November 1, 2012."

Though early voting was scrubbed Monday and Tuesday, O'Malley said it would resume Wednesday and that voting hours would be expanded on Friday, according to Politico.

A note posted on the D.C. Board of Elections website announced that "early voting sites will remain closed on Tuesday, October 30, 2012 due to the continuing effects of Hurricane Sandy."

Virginia closed some local voter registration offices in Northern Virginia and the D.C. area, but most remained open.

Early voting sites were also shuttered in parts of North Carolina.

And in an election that has both incumbent President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney scrambling for the lead, every vote, particularly those in swing states, matters. That holds very true with some states, such as Pennsylvania and Minnesota, back in play. ABC News moved both from 'safe' to 'lean' Obama this week.

Both candidates have urged their supporters to cast ballots ahead of Election Day, but many groups that have traditionally encouraged early voting -- such as African-American churches that organize trips to the polls on the weekend prior to the election -- swing toward Obama. And as the Economist noted, "a certain amount of bad weather on election day helps conservatives in every democracy. In crude terms, car-driving conservative retirees still turn out in driving rain, when bus-taking lower-income workers just back from a night shift are more likely to give rain-soaked polls a miss."

That could spell bad news for the Obama campaign, but Romney supporters in Sandy's path may actually face greater challenges in terms of casting ballots. While Democrats tend to live in dense, urban areas that often see the first cleanup efforts, many Republicans live in more rural areas where efforts to clear roads and restore power could take longer.

The Economist also points out that the most enthusiastic supporters of each campaign are the ones who can't wait to cast ballots and often do so as soon as early voting opens. For most places that happened several days before Sandy struck. It's this week "when less zealous supporters were supposed to be finding a moment to cast a ballot."

It's also worth noting that each state handles its own election practices, so while Maryland for example, has extended early voting to Friday to make up for lost time early this week, other states may not.

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