Photo: Nick Summers
Amid the chaos of Hurricane Sandy, it has been easy to forget that the presidential election is less than one week away. Aside from the implications that the storm may have on early voting, turnout, and the campaign schedule, the storm could have serious effects on Election Day at the most fundamental level: How people vote.
Since Monday, massive power outages have hit at least 16 states in the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest, affecting more than 7 million people.
In several places, the power is expected to be out for up to 10 days — well past Election Day on November 6. Which raises some major questions about how people are supposed to vote if the lights — and voting machines — are off.
As of Tuesday night, the answers to those questions remain largely uncertain. Election officials in most of the affected states have been unable to go to work this week, making it difficult to assess the situation and come up with contingency plans.
But state officials are already promising that every effort will be made to give voters access to the polls, while also raising concerns about the potential logistical nightmare of organising an election in the dark.
In New York, state officials told the New York Times that the state has given a list of prioritised polling sites to ConEd, and is prepared to move or consolidate sites without power. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett said Tuesday that the county election officials are working with utility companies to make sure they have power on election day.
Generally speaking, in polling places that use paper ballots, power outages will be an annoying, but not insurmountable, problem. While election officials won’t be able to scan and electronically submit ballots, the ballots can still be counted by hand.
But in an age where electronic voting is increasingly widespread — and, in some state, mandated by law — a lack of power presents considerable difficulties. Most electronic voting machines have a battery life of just 2 to 5 hours. County officials have mentioned the possibility of bringing in generators, and consolidating polling places. At the very least, voters without power can expect long lines on November 6.
The effect that this could have on election results depends almost entirely the extent of the outages at polling places, particularly in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia. Given that this election is likely to be a nailbiter, the possibility of more paper ballots and more potential voting problems make a nightmare scenario of a too-close-to-call election all the more imaginable.
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