What already looked to be a historically close presidential contest now has a new and confounding variable: Hurricane Sandy. As the storm lashed the East Coast and Midwest with gale-force winds, torrential rain and flooding, election officials faced new challenges: blackouts, floods and blizzards that could hinder voting through Election Day.
"We are anticipating that, based on the storm, there could be impacts that would linger into next week and have impacts on the federal election," said Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "It's really too early to say what will be the impacts of the storm, and that's why it's again important that we'll be supporting the governors' teams and their supervisors of election or secretaries of State as they determine what assistance they may need."
President Obama canceled campaign events in Ohio today to focus on managing disaster relief efforts, while Romney converted a planned campaign rally into a storm-relief benefit in the Buckeye State.
Of the swing states affected by the storm, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia are most reliant on electronic voting machines that require electricity to tally a vote. More than half the counties in each state do not use paper ballots on Election Day.
More than 250,000 people in Ohio were without power Tuesday, but the outages are not expected to last more than a few days. And even counties that rely on electronic voting machines use paper ballots for absentee votes, so those counties have contingency plans -- which could include relocating polling places, said Matthew McClellan, spokesman for the Ohio secretary of State.
"It seems to me the best way to handle that risk is to maximize the availability of paper ballots," said Ned Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University. Even if the paper ballots are photocopied and have to be counted by hand, "a non-standard ballot is better than no ballot at all."
The storm also comes as election officials are at a crucial point in their preparations. Across the country, officials are training poll workers, preparing ballots and testing equipment.
"All of that's come to a grinding halt," said Doug Lewis of National Association of Election Officials, which advises state election offices. "It's the kind of logistical nightmare that just drives you crazy."
In a worst-case scenario, a never-used federal law gives states the authority to reschedule or even cancel an election if, for some reason, it cannot choose its presidential electors on Election Day. But the language of the law suggests that the state must attempt to hold the election -- and can't cancel it in advance, Foley said.
The weather has already had an impact on early voting. Early-voting days were canceled in all of Maryland, which is expected to go for Obama, and in parts of the swing states of Virginia and North Carolina. In Ohio, a power outage at the Erie County Board of Elections suspended early voting for more than two hours Tuesday, but elections director Jennifer Ferback said only two voters were turned away.
Jacob Soboroff, of the election reform group Why Tuesday?, said the disaster shows the need for more flexible voting laws. "There are 15 states with Tuesday-only voting," he said. "If Election Day was tomorrow there would be major problems."
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