NEW YORK -- It sounds like a Halloween nightmare: after a major storm, wide swaths of the country are without power going into Election Day. Electronic voting machines cannot operate, denying Americans the right to vote and throwing the result of a presidential election into question.
But due to a spectacular combination of bad timing and Hurricane Sandy's massive girth, some elements of that scenario are coming into play. States all up and down the East Coast, including battlegrounds like Virginia and North Carolina, canceled early voting hours this week. Cleaning up damage from Sandy will make it harder for supporters to volunteer and could depress turnout in some areas.
“We’ll be ready for Election Day one way or the other, and people will have the opportunity to vote in the election, but we’re just going to have to see where we are,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) said Wednesday evening.
But even Christie acknowledged that there could be some polling places without power as of Election Day Tuesday. That could lead to problems for voters who will also be struggling with washed out roads and wrecked homes.
In some small fortune, while the "Frankenstorm" did move inland toward the battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio that will likely decide the election because of the electoral college, its damage was not as extensive in those states as on the coast.
"Thank God we're not New Jersey and New York right now," said Stuart Garson, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democrats in Ohio. "We have sporadic outages, but it's not like we have a half a million people [without power]."
As of Thursday, 77,000 customers were without power in Cuyahoga, which includes the critical Democratic stronghold of Cleveland, according to figures from utility company FirstEnergy.
But Garson said that Cleveland's in-person early voting center had not been affected by outages. The numbers of in-person voters thus far this year, 30,241, was down only slightly from the similar figure at this point in 2008, 34,527. Garson chalked that up more to bad weather than power problems, and said he was confident that an increase in absentee ballots made up for the shortfall.
"I do think we are going to give President Obama and Sen. Sherrod Brown a big big bump here," he said.
In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, there were 509,839 customers without power as of Thursday afternoon. The percentage of people affected, 8 percent, was relatively light compared to New Jersey, where 43 percent were waiting for the lights to come back on. But the number was still significant in a state where a swing of just 310,000 voters would have put Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), then the Republican presidential nominee, over the top in 2008.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has pledged that he will work with utilities to ensure that every polling place in the state has power by Election Day. Backup plans include emergency paper ballots and running electronic voting machines on battery power.
Neither Pennsylvania nor New Jersey and New York make extensive use of early voting, which could minimize the impact of storm-related disruptions on voting. But cleanup from Sandy looks like it will take more than a week.
"The photos I've seen in New Jersey -- I don't understand how you hold an election there," said Thad Hall, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah. "Like literally, I don't understand you hold an election somewhere that's flooded."
If elections officials cannot find backup polling places in time, or voters are too busy managing their own troubles to vote, that could create legitimacy problems, Hall argued.
"What is likely to happen is that Obama's still going to win New Jersey and win New York, but what it may do is ... lower his vote totals nationally enough where he's going to win the electoral college but not win the national vote," Hall said.
If that happens, he continued, the outcome will be a repeat of "all those kind of arguments that Democrats made after 2000 but Republicans are a lot better making over and over again" about a president's mandate. "They haven't given up on birther conspiraces and things like that, so think about what they're going to do if he doesn't win the popular vote," he said.
In close races downballot from senator to dogcatcher, Hall also worries about the storm disruptions' ability to tip elections.
Hall and others have also expressed the belief that Hurricane Sandy should serve as a wake-up call to Congress, which has not put in place provisions for emergencies that disrupt the election on a massive scale.
Things are bad enough as they are, Hall said, but "if this had happened next week, we would be in a world of disaster."
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