Hurricane Sandy's devastating landfall and continuing progress through the Northeastern United States present a new set of challenges to the stability of elections scheduled for November 6.
Parts of New Jersey and New York — as well as several other coastal states — have suffered significant flooding and evacuations that already have led to disruptions and could lead to Election Day complications. Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York and Rhode Island also had at least voluntary evacuations because of the giant storm.
Some of the effects were immediate. Today, for example, is the deadline for county clerks in New Jersey to receive applications for a mail-in ballot for next week's election. For many New Jersey voters, however, Hurricane Sandy — which made landfall on New Jersey's shore on Monday night — pushed the election into the background.
Other election administrators have shifted deadlines — though none has suggested moving Election Day. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has extended the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot in impacted counties.
In addition to registration deadlines, the storm already has also cut early voting hours, which have been canceled in several places — including Maryland, D.C. and parts of North Carolina and Virginia. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley added early voting hours for later in the week.
Ohio State University law professor Steven Huefner, an expert in election administration, told BuzzFeed Tuesday afternoon he thought the problems with early voting are "manageable" and that, where the law allows it, states have relative ease with extending absentee voting application deadlines. The big problem, he said, could come in the way elections officials handle the actual Election Day.
A difficulty of addressing the impact — and making changes — in the aftermath of Sandy is that there is not going to be any significant passage of time between the storm and the election. If displaced individuals who have been evacuated or whose homes have been damaged remain unable to return home, they could lack both the ability to cast an absentee ballot or to vote in person on Election Day. Moreover, state officials outside of elections divisions, are going to be focused elsewhere — on more immediate public safety and infrastructure issues — in the coming days.
In the storm's aftermath, there also could be physical complications if voting sites have been destroyed or lack power or if any voting equipment has been damaged.
"We don't have a very well-established set of mechanisms for making those adjustments. Some states have existing procedures, but that's a minority of states that do. Even those states that have thought about it have come up with widely differing approaches," Huefner said.
Finally, shuttered government offices meant one, two or possibly more days of elections preparations in the final full week before Election Day have been eliminated. Among the 8 million without power have been government offices, causing further complications.
Other natural disasters have had sweeping electoral impact.
After Hurricane Katrina, Maya Roy wrote in an article about "The State of Democracy After Disaster" that "approximately 400,000 registered voters … fled the state, 300,000 [of whom] were from New Orleans." Katrina’s late-August landfall, though creating significant problems for Louisiana elections because of the large numbers of long-term displaced people, was more than two months before an off-year election.
Huefner wrote on Monday about the potential for election disruption because of the storm, noting that "[i]ndividual states … do have some flexibility to deal with emergencies." Referring to 2001, he wrote, "New York City postponed a municipal election already underway when the September 11 attacks occurred, for instance." The problem, he wrote, is that "the exact contours of this flexibility are unclear, precisely because it is not routinely exercised and in many states is not clearly spelled out."
He also told BuzzFeed today that the timing could have been even worse.
"I'd like to invite people to think about what would be happening if the storm had arrived eight days later than it had," Huefner said. "I think this storm is much more of a warning than an actual problem — although I don't want to say that with complete certainty. We still need to wait, probably a day or so to get a real sense of the effect."