How Sandy will affect the election

2012-11-03 13:39

Voters in Democrat areas are worst hit by a hurricane that might limit the pro-Obama vote

Thanks to a wave of new voting restrictions passed by Republicans, this year’s US election was already shaping up to be pretty chaotic before the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, which left 8.2 million households without power in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

The good news? All of these states should have power mostly restored by Tuesday’s election day.

The bad news? Many of these states will still experience the potential for serious problems, either on election day or in the days preceding (early voting has already begun in a number of states affected by Sandy).

Problems could include: electronic voting machines without power and a shortage of backup paper ballots; polling places without power, damaged or moved; voters unable to reach their polling place or unable to mail in an absentee ballot by the deadline; and election administration unprepared to deal with a multitude of new, unforeseen complications.

Eric Marshall, the director of legal mobilisation for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said: “There’s no manual for how to run an election in the wake of a natural disaster.

The storm creates a whole other set of complications. Before you had questions of: did people have the right ID to vote? Would they be challenged at the polling place?

Would they be on the voting rolls? Now you have another set of questions: will there be electricity to power the voting machines? Are some of the polling places damaged?

Can they relocate polling places in advance? Can people get to the polling places? Will there be fewer people voting because they have other concerns?”

As of Wednesday, power outages were the most severe in New Jersey (2.4 million homes and businesses without power), New York (1.9 million) and Pennsylvania (1.2 million).

Sandy could depress Obama’s turnout in large blue states such as New Jersey and New York, affecting the president’s popular vote total, while impacting the results in crucial battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania and Virginia.

According to The Washington Post, “in Pennsylvania, officials said that getting all the polls open in all 67 counties on election day may be problematic. About 1.2 million customers in Pennsylvania lost power in the storm, and utilities warned that full restoration might be more than a week away. All of the nine counties with the bulk of the power losses went for Obama in 2008”.

And on to Virginia. “Nine Virginia communities, including several in Northern Virginia that were key to President Obama’s victory in the commonwealth in 2008, remained closed for in-person absentee voting Tuesday in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy,” the Post reported.

At least six states hit by the storm (Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia) use electronic voting machines with limited paper-ballot backups.

Brad Friedman of The Brad Blog reported that “in these locations, unless they have enough emergency paper ballots printed to accommodate the entire electorate at precincts where power remains disrupted on election day, there could be very serious and unprecedented problems”.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that “in case of power loss, local election officials are encouraged to keep enough paper ballots on hand for 25% of their registered voters”.

That seems woefully inadequate given the magnitude of the hurricane.

States impacted by Sandy could extend polling hours on election day or during early voting. But any vote cast during extended hours within 10 days of the election must be done via provisional ballot, noted Rick Hasen, the author of The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown.

In 2008, 31% of 2.1 million provisional ballots cast nationwide were not counted.

Hasen urged states affected by Sandy to print as many backup paper ballots as possible, open as many polling places as is feasible and ensure all locations have power through the night. “We haven’t had anything like this in recent memory, on this scale,” he said.

Regardless of who wins the election, the most important part of the electoral process is that every eligible vote is counted. The integrity of the election was already under siege due to Republican voter suppression laws.

Hopefully, Sandy won’t make a bad situation worse.

» Berman is a US politics author
© 2012 The Nation, distributed by Agence Global

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