Much of the East Coast, from Virginia to Connecticut, is just starting to recover from the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, with about 4.5 million homes and businesses still without power and and thousands of people unable to return to homes that are unsafe or destroyed. In four days, however, the U.S. is still scheduled to hold its big national election, with the presidency, the makeup of Congress, and hundreds of local races and ballot measures at stake. "There's no manual for how to run an election in the wake of a natural disaster," Eric Marshall at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights tells The Nation. Add in a handful of incredibly tight races, including for the White House, and Sandy has become more than just a political curveball in a tightly scripted presidential race — it has become a potential spoiler. Here's a look at how the megastorm could affect the 2012 election:
What barriers has Sandy thrown up to voting?
The big concerns are that voters displaced from their homes won't be able to reach their polling places or send in an absentee ballot in time; that voting locations were damaged or destroyed; that power outages will render electronic voting machines useless and there aren't enough paper ballots to compensate; and that distracted officials won't have the time, energy, or resources to fix the problems before Election Day. And even before Nov. 6, Sandy has shaved off a few days of early voting — at just the moment sporadic voters are most likely to cast their ballots.
What are local and state officials doing about it?
Some states have extended early-voting hours or deadlines to register to vote or turn in absentee ballots, and areas hit by blackouts or flooding are scrambling to get backup power or relocate polling locales — New Jersey will deploy military trucks to some storm-ravaged towns to serve as temporary polling stations. But many state and local officials are concentrating more on putting out Sandy's fires and saving lives than making sure voting goes off flawlessly. "I don't give a damn about Election Day," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Tuesday. (Other New Jersey officials are working hard to make the voting happen.)
Can the election be postponed?
"The short answer is it is possible, but very unlikely to happen," says Jordan Fabian at ABC News. The Constitution gives Congress the power to set the date for presidential and congressional elections, a power it used in 1845 to pick the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, a date that has stuck for every election since 1872. In theory, Congress could reconvene and change that date, but "I don't see it happening," Nathan Kelly, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee, tells the Knoxville News Sentinel. "Those states and localities will just have to figure out how to run the elections."
Who benefits from the voting disruptions?
Republicans, probably. "To be brutal, a certain amount of bad weather on Election Day helps conservatives in every democracy," says The Economist, and Sandy will hurt the Democrats both in early voting and probably on Nov. 6. "In crude terms, car-driving conservative retirees" are more likely to vote in the face of adversity than "bus-taking lower-income workers just back from a night shift." The caveat with Sandy, says ABC News' Fabian, is that "Democrats tend to live in dense, urban areas that often see the first cleanup efforts, [while] many Republicans live in more rural areas where efforts to clear roads and restore power could take longer."
Could Sandy actually tip the election?
There's the remote possibility that low turnout in Sandy-hit Democratic strongholds like Philadelphia and Northern Virginia could tip a state like Pennsylvania or Virginia into Romney's column, but "where the storm has had its broadest and strongest impact are places where the outcome is pretty clear, like New York for example," says Tennessee's Nathan Kelly. New York and New Jersey are going to pick Obama, so in terms of the electoral college, "I don't think the slight differentials in turnout will change the results in any specific way." Sandy probably won't change the electoral math, says Dbug at Daily Kos. But if enough voters in storm-hit blue states stay home to concentrate on putting back together their lives, while red-state voters come out in force, "I can imagine a scenario where Romney wins the popular vote by a small percentage, but Obama wins the electoral vote." If that happens, Obama still wins, but "Republicans will be whining about it incessantly for the next four years."
Are there any other wild cards?
There are plenty, but perhaps the biggest is the weather. Government storm forecasters are warning of a less-powerful but still wet and windy nor'easter hitting the East Coast on Election Day. Actually, there's rain forecast "in all the worst places for Democratic turnout" on Nov. 6, says W. E. Messamore at the Independent Voter Network, including the bluest parts of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida, as well as all of Michigan. Add that to the other effects of Sandy, and it's a real "blow to Democratic candidates, including President Obama." There will be problems at the polls, but "I think this storm is much more of a warning than an actual problem," Ohio State University law professor Steven Huefner tells BuzzFeed. To get a sense of how much worse it could be, "I'd like to invite people to think about what would be happening if the storm had arrived eight days later than it had."
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