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Hurricane Sandy Halts Early Voting In Parts Of Virginia, North Carolina

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NEW YORK -- Hurricane Sandy closed early voting sites in several states on Monday, including in the crucial vote-rich Democratic stronghold of northern Virginia. But the ultimate effects of the storm were as unclear for the presidential campaigns as for worried residents in Sandy's path.

This should have been a crucial moment for the campaigns of President Barack Obama Mitt Romney to put ballots in the bank and begin last-minute voter mobilization efforts. Instead, the campaigns were treading carefully, lest they appear insensitive to hardships caused by the hurricane.

"In a worst-case scenario, it could affect the election outcome in northern Virginia," said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University professor who heads the United States Election Project. But with the storm's ultimate effects unclear, he said, "it's just so difficult to tell at this point."

Government offices in some parts of northern Virginia were closed, preventing early in-person voting. In response, Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, pledged to extend early voting hours later in the week. The state Board of Elections also said voters would be able to use Sandy as an excuse under the state's absentee ballot restrictions.

In North Carolina, coastal counties' one-stop early voting sites were closed. Overall, said Gary Bartlett, executive director of the state Board of Elections, "there has been some disruption, but very little." In fact early voting on Sunday exceeded the "benchmark year" of 2008, with 35,192 votes, compared with 23,086 then, he said.

Maryland, not considered a swing state, canceled all early voting on Monday and Tuesday. Gov. Martin O'Malley declared a state of emergency and promised to extend early voting to Friday.

Pennsylvania, another state expecting a hard hit from Sandy, has restrictive laws on early voting. Voters can only receive absentee ballots with an excuse. The state was considering whether to extend the Oct. 30 deadline to request those absentee ballots.

North Carolina and Pennsylvania elections officials predicted the storm's effects on Election Day, Nov. 6, would be minimal.

Both presidential campaigns continued to jockey over who had the advantage on early voting. The crucial battleground of Ohio -- which many pundits predict will decide the election -- doesn't lie in Sandy's predicted path. But Virginia and North Carolina could help put one candidate over the top in some Electoral College scenarios.

Adam Fetcher, deputy national press secretary for the Obama campaign, told HuffPost via email that "The campaign is closely monitoring the storm and we are taking all necessary precautions to make sure our staff and volunteers are safe."

"Where it’s safe to do so, our historic grassroots organization is running at full speed in Eastern battleground states," Fetcher said.

The Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment about early voting limitations.

The biggest effect on the election, predicted George Mason professor McDonald, may be on the campaigns' efforts to mobilize voters the weekend before the election. If Hurricane Sandy leaves a path of broken trees and downed power lines, he said, "certainly people will be more concerned about cleaning up than helping (campaigns) get out to vote."

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