Though the winds of Superstorm Sandy have settled, the devastating storm has left a lot of unanswered questions on the political front. Will the presidential election be delayed? Will polling hours be extended? Will voters in the hardest hit states even show up at the polls?
An 1845 law dictates that the presidential election must be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November. Changing that date on a national level would require an act of Congress, something that’s never been done. And if a change to the election were made, 14th Amendment concerns could pop up.
“Equal protection and due process are always in play in any election context,” said Ned Foley, director of the election law program at Ohio State University. “Imagine a situation where polls are kept open in one location but not in another? The court would ask, is that arbitrary or is it justifiable? If there was a genuine, specific emergency confined to a particular location, the court might be more likely to say ‘You can tailor your response to the conditions on the ground.’”
But, despite legal hurdles, Foley said there is a history of disaster-related election delays and extensions, though few in presidential races. In 2001, New York City’s mayoral race was delayed after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and in 2005, Hurricane Katrina delayed a statewide election in Louisiana.
In terms of presidential elections, in 1972, voting equipment issues in part of Ohio pushed back voting in some precincts to the following Tuesday. And, in the 2008 presidential “Potomac primary” (Republican and Democratic primaries held in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia on the same day), the polls were held open later by a court order after severe weather crossed the area.
So what will happen on Election Day? We turned to a political historian and a political science professor to get their takes.
HLN: Will the effects of Hurricane Sandy delay the election?
Andra Gillespie, Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University: Most states have said they’re going to make the polls functional by Election Day. It’s become very clear that Congress isn’t going to pass a law to change Election Day, that states will have to figure out a way to make polling stations functional. There is some flexibility in the date even with the [1845 law] in place, but just from a practical standpoint, as inconvenient as this is for folks trying to rebuild houses and rescue people who are trapped, it would be a logistical nightmare to try to postpone this election. It’s probably easier to try to bite the bullet and do it now rather than try to delay it.
Matt Dallek, historian at the University of California Washington Center: The country has held elections during the Civil War, during WWII, in all kinds of situations. By law, states are supposed to hold the election on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November, but they do have wiggle room. There’s not a whole lot of precedent for this, and from what I’ve read [a change] would result in legal challenges. I don’t think anybody is contemplating this. There is a mechanism, but I don’t think it’s going to be used.
HLN: What, if any, effects will Hurricane Sandy have on the election outcome?
Gillespie: I would expect that in states adversely affected, turnout is going to be a little bit lower than it would be otherwise. I don’t know if it will affect the overall election in part because the fewer Mitt Romney supporters will cancel out the fewer President Obama supporters. I would expect the overall state counts are going to be roughly the same. Obama will still win New York and New Jersey, as he’s always been predicted to do.
What could happen is that we could see a difference in the popular vote especially since affected states are expected to vote for Obama. He’ll still get the Electoral College votes, he may just get fewer popular votes -- but then again so will Romney. Some of these affected places are part-Republican, like Staten Island, the Jersey Shore and Ocean County, so it’s not that Romney isn’t going to lose any votes, Obama will probably just lose a little more. It’s not going change the outcome.
Dallek: Given just how widespread the damage is, there’s probably going to be some impact. It’s very hard to imagine they’re going to get all the polling stations up and running. If you’ve lost your home or lost your power or been evacuated, it might mean you have other priorities. That could have an impact, minor, but it could have an impact on the popular vote especially because the polls say it’s close.
I do think you will see an impact in New York and New Jersey to some extent. I don’t think that it will affect turnout in any battleground state enough to alter the outcome because the states that are going to decide the election did not get all that hard hit relative to New York and New Jersey.
HLN: Does weather in general affect voting habits?
Gillespie: Rain and snow can affect turnout, particularly Democratic turnout. People behave differently in the weather sometimes. It’s more inconvenient, it’s slower. Those types of generic things can impact their vote. If you’re not particularly motivated, that’s your excuse to stay in. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for Democrats, but usually the difference in the outcome is negligible. I don’t think Romney is all of the sudden going to win New York. The president was going to win those states handily, and he’s still going to win those states handily even if voters turn out at anemic rates in New York City.
Dallek: Bad weather will absolutely dampen turnout, and when the weather is nice, you won’t necessarily see a huge jump in turnout. But if there are massive thunderstorms and tons of snow, this could all reduce turnout. It sounds like the biggest effect will be the [Sandy] aftermath cleaning up the electricity and power issues, the opening-up of roads. There could be some effect on the polls.
Polling has become more difficult because it’s much harder to reach people in some parts of the country because of this catastrophe. The national polls going forward in the next few days will have to be taken with a bigger grain of salt.
Will the candidates’ reaction to the storm affect the way people vote?
Gillespie: Because it happened very late in the cycle, there are a lot of people who had already made up their minds and it’s probably not going to change their minds. For the small sliver of undecided voters, Obama benefits from a week where he looks like a president, looks compassionate and he looks like a strong leader. It probably could have benefited Obama [more], but it’s probably too little too late.
Dallek: When there’s a crisis, it is also an opportunity for the president, in addition to governors and mayors, to step in and lead. The president can get a lift in terms of public support. Like, President George H.W. Bush when he launched the first Gulf War and there was a rallying-around-the-flag effect. The timing was key because this was in 1991 so it was more than a year before the election and the same thing in a sense was true with George W. Bush and 9/11.
In the days after, Bush gave a very moving speech at the National Cathedral, and then he went to New York City and used the bullhorn. I think those images have a lasting effect and I would liken those moments to Gov. Chris Christie and President Barack Obama, to the lasting image of them patting each other on the back and lavishing praise. I think that may have an impact on November 6. Romney had no official role, and in some sense was on the sidelines.