East Coast storm damage, power outages raise questions about Election Day voting
Unlikely Congress would extend voting nationwide due to problems in storm-struck states
Election officials in NJ, NY are left with more questions than answers.
States on the outskirts of Sandy's wrath will fare better on November 6
When Sandy slammed into the East Coast on Monday, it set into motion a tight timeline for election officials: one week to ensure that voters in states from Virginia to New Hampshire would be able cast their ballots on Election Day.
But power outages, flooding and snow left in the storm’s wake could make that impossible for voters in some of the hardest-hit states.
Some fire stations, schools, community centers and other venues that serve as polling places will have to be cleaned up if they were flooded or damaged.
Other polling spots may need to be relocated if they are too damaged to be used. Voting machines may have to be dropped off at some polling places with election officials gambling that power will be restored there by Tuesday.
Many electronic voting machines – used now by two out of every five counties nationwide, according to the Voting Technology Project – often require consistent power to work for the long hours they are needed on Election Day, even though some have battery power.
If electricity remains out in some areas next Tuesday, those areas may have to scramble to find alternatives, including paper ballots.
It is unlikely voters in the hardest hit states will be given an extension if they cannot access polls, despite damage from the storm.
Only Congress can change Election Day, according to an 1845 law. If it opts to alter the timetable – something never previously done – every state would have to be included.
The same law also says that if a state “shall fail to make a choice” on Election Day, then electors to the Electoral College may be appointed on a “subsequent day” as determined by state law.
As state and county election officials throughout the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast work to coordinate logistics at polling stations scattered across Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, it is still unknown whether all voters in the states hardest hit by Sandy will have the opportunity to cast their ballots on Election Day.
New Jersey: ‘We’re not sure. At this point, we’re looking at a lot of changes.’
The biggest challenge for election officials in the Garden State are logistical: power outages, blocked roads and flooding, according to Dennis Kobitz, president of the New Jersey Association of Election Officials.
Election officials have been in touch on conference calls since the storm hit on Monday. On a call on Tuesday, election officials from Essex, Bergen and Union counties said electrical outages were the chief concern; in Ocean, Mercer and Monmouth counties, officials said their biggest obstacle was flooding.
Calls to election officials in these counties were not immediately returned.
Kobitz has had to scale back the number of polling locations in Union County because of power outages and access problems to some of the 190 polling locations.
“We would like to keep one to two polling places in each town,” Kobitz said, because he doesn’t like to force voters to travel long distances.
Delivering electronic voting machines from the county’s warehouse to polling stations is also presenting a problem.
“Our biggest problem at this point is getting the machines to the polling places. Nobody’s there to accept the machines,” Kobitz said, noting that many of the them are locked and without power.
“Do I leave [the polling machines at the polling stations]?” Kobitz asked, frustrated with the unknown. “How do I take a chance that the schools will have power?”
“I can’t just deliver 433 machines – there’s no way to do that in one day,” he said.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker said he was confident that New Jersey residents would be able to cast ballots next week.
But he said he was focusing on emergency needs first, saying that there would be time to worry about voting.
“I’m sure that as Election Day gets closer, we’re going to find ways to make sure that it’s as functional as possible and people are able to vote,” Booker told CNN’s “Starting Point on Tuesday.
New York: Cards stacked against them
For election officials in Nassau County, New York, located on Long Island just east of Manhattan, the cards are stacked against them.
The county, which was declared a disaster area following Sandy’s beating on Monday night, has experienced many of the same problems as the hardest-hit areas, including flooding and power outages.
Ninety percent of the county’s polling stations are currently without power, Nassau County Democratic Elections Commissioner William Biamonte said. Those stations that do have power are in firehouses and are running on generators. Sixty-eight of the county’s polling stations counted as of Wednesday were in flood plains and may have been damaged. County officials still don’t know for sure.
In addition to power outages and flooding, staffing at the elections sites could prove problematic in Nassau County. Elections officials were in the process of training 55 elections inspectors to oversee the vote. Since the storm, training has stopped, Biamonte said and some of the training locations are being used as shelters.
Another concern - most of the elections inspectors, Biamonte said, are seniors. In addition to disruptions in training, he said, elections officials are unsure if the inspectors evacuated ahead of the storm.
Perhaps the silver lining for Nassau County is that it votes by paper ballot.
Determined to see voting goes on, Biamonte said, “The process could have to go back to Colonial times that instead of voting with lanterns we’ll be voting with flashlights.”
CNN was unable to reach elections officials in New York City’s other surrounding counties.
New York does not offer early voting.
Pennsylvania: ‘We’re currently in the process of assessing the situation’
Pennsylvania’s eastern counties that lie along the Delaware River and the state’s border with New Jersey are among the hardest hit by Sandy.
In New Jersey’s Bucks County, just north of Philadelphia, election officials are grappling with similar logistical difficulties that are plaguing officials in New Jersey.
According to Deena Dean, Director of Bucks County Board of Elections and Registration, voting machine delivery to the county’s 215 polling locations is a challenge.
“The voting machines were supposed to be delivered beginning on Monday of this week and we couldn’t begin to deliver until today,” Dean said.
“The hauler has to call every polling place and reschedule delivery,” Dean said. “So as the hauler reschedules deliveries, we are being notified of that.”
Dean said she wasn’t sure what Election Day would look like.
Statewide, Ron Ruman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, doesn’t anticipate tremendous disruptions.
“Counties have emergency plans that are put in place every year. It’s not unusual for us to have polling places every year that need to be changed (for one reason or another),” Ruman said.
Ruman said he didn’t anticipate that more than “one or two polling places will have to be moved.”
Virginia: ‘I don’t want anything to interrupt…democracy’
In Virginia, one of the tightest of the battleground states where the storm left more than 114,000 customers without power, Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell said the state is working to return power to election offices without power.
“I don’t want anything to interrupt with full participation in democracy as we go up into into this presidential election,” McDonnell said during a press conference Tuesday.
“Right now, our assessment is that there are nine registrar’s offices without power. Our friends from the power companies have made that a top priority – after hospitals and nursing homes and so forth – to restore their power. We anticipate that all those will be back within a day or two.”
“We don’t believe there’ll be any problem with any voting location, any precinct. Of the 2,800 or so precincts, none of them we anticipate will have any problem being fully operational next Tuesday.”
McDonnell said that the state would also extend absentee voting through Nov. 3 and has asked registrars “to stay open for up to eight additional hours to be able to make up for the time that a citizen may not have had to vote absentee over the last two days.” Virginia does not have blanket early voting.
Lisa Connors, a spokeswoman for Fairfax County government, said officials who manage elections locally were making assessments but did not anticipate any disruptions. The county is one of the swing state’s most populous and most heavily contested areas.
Virginia, like other states, has options, including a provision in state law that allows for polling places to be relocated.
Ohio: No problems anticipated in biggest battleground
Ohio, the key battleground states that could decide the election, caught the edge of Sandy.
Despite power outages near Cleveland and in other parts of the state, Matthew McClelland, a spokesmen for the secretary of state’s office, said they don’t anticipate any problems come Tuesday.
New Hampshire: “Power … should be restored by the weekend”
Disruptions aren’t expected in the battleground state of New Hampshire either.
“It appears from emergency management agencies in New Hampshire that power throughout the state should be restored by the weekend, well in advance of Election Day,” said Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan. “Other than that we are ready to conduct an election.”
CNN’s Ashley Killough and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report