Tales from the Trail

Could Sandy blow away the election? Don’t hold your breath

October 30, 2012

Deadly Superstorm Sandy left millions of Americans snowed in, flooded out or stranded without power – and the federal government itself in Washington closed – just a week before voters across the country head to the polls. But if anyone is wondering whether Election Day will be put off, the answer is almost certainly no.

Local U.S. elections have been postponed before – in one relatively recent example, New York put off voting that had been set for Sept. 11, 2001, because of the attacks on the country that day. But presidential balloting has always gone on, even during the Civil War in 1864 (President Abraham Lincoln was re-elected).

Federal law mandates that the national vote must take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every four years.

Some sources say a state might have the authority to put off voting in a national election within its border in case of a terrorist act or natural disaster. But election law experts said that might not be legal, and would definitely be disruptive, especially in a close election like this year’s and more so in a swing state like Virginia, where two days of early voting have already been cancelled because of Sandy. Changing the federal law – through an act of Congress – is extremely unlikely, given the country’s bitter partisan divisions in the midst of a tightly contested election.

“I feel pretty safe in saying the likelihood of an amendment of this federal statute is right around zero,” said Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University and an expert on election law and voting rights.

Analysts said there would be howls of protests if President Barack Obama even spoke of the possibility of putting off the vote on Nov. 6, even though it is not clear whether a delay would benefit the Democratic incumbent or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Most of the states affected by Sandy are strongly Democratic in presidential elections – Obama leads in New Jersey by 12 percentage points and in New York by 26. For those states, postponing could lower turnout and thus cut into Obama’s overall share of the popular vote, but it is unlikely to change whether Obama wins their electoral votes.

And in Virginia, where the race is a dead heat, Sandy could be expected to hurt Obama’s prospects because it canceled two days of early voting – and Democrats are generally more likely to take advantage of early voting. But it could also hurt Romney, because voters in rural areas – the Republican’s base of support – are more likely to wait longer for their power to be restored or be unable to get to the polls because roads are blocked by fallen trees.

Photo: People take part in early voting in Columbus, Ohio on October 30, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

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