Moving Election Day could be more disruptive than Sandy

Trees fell throughout Washington during the storm. Trees fell throughout Washington during the storm. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Sandy has already wreaked all sorts of havoc on the East Seaboard. But its destructive impact also now carries the potential to disrupt voting up to and on Election Day in several states, raising questions about whether voting procedures and maybe even dates should be altered.

Under the Constitution, Congress has the authority to change the “First Tuesday in November” date for the presidential election. But as of Tuesday morning, there had been no serious discussion of moving the date of Election Day by the top leaders in the Republican-led House or the Democratic-led Senate, according to senior congressional aides. A spokesman for the House Committee on Administration does say that committee “is closely monitoring the impacted states.”

Delaying the election may be an option given that hard-hit states are likely to be dealing with power outages and flooded locales that could extend well past Nov. 6. And with this presidential race projected to be close electorally, imagine the controversy and lawsuits that would inevitably result because enough back-up generators can’t be found to power electronic voting equipment, or voters have been displaced from home or can’t get to polling places.

Of the states in Sandy's path, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland are expected to favor President Obama over Mitt Romney. But North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire were also affected by the storm, and they are toss-ups. Even far-flung Ohio – a must-win for both candidates – experienced storm-related rain, high winds and power outages.

Further complicating matters is that most states – including those that escaped the storm -- have set their non-federal elections for the same day. Some, likely claiming logistical reasons, would not want to move their dates, or allow balloting on multiple days. Some experts say any changes like that could affect voter turnout and enmesh the country in still more post-election challenges.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are telling states that the federal government would help them pay to move polling places, or to bring in generators next week to areas without power. But political and legal experts underscore that – even after 9/11, which occurred just before a mayoral election in New York – that the federal government has never put in place any solid plan to deal with such disruptions. “So we are left with the situation where the people who probably most know where we might stand on Election Day are the utility companies,” says Edward Foley, an election law expert at The Ohio State University Law School in Columbus.

Foley, who is writing a book on the history of disputed elections, says there are options far preferable to  delaying Election Day or extending voting beyond Nov. 6. He is among those who favor such alternatives as emergency backup paper ballots in polling places that can be opened but may be without power, or emergency access for voters who can’t get to their polling places because of the storm.

Imagine if states like Virginia or New Hampshire are permitted to continue to cast ballots with the Electoral College outcome still in doubt, Foley says, or a state like Ohio – affected relatively mildly by Sandy -- decided to keep its polls open an extra day or two in order to give its voters “an extra opportunity to affect the Electoral College outcome.”

Those would be uncharted and undesirable waters for a polarized nation.

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