Zaino: How Sandy might affect today's elections

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(Credit: TMS illustration by Michael Osbun)

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On Monday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed an executive order to allow New Yorkers in counties affected by hurricane Sandy to vote by affidavit at any polling place in the state.

The order represents a tacit recognition by Cuomo of at least one of the ways in which the hurricane may impact the election. When voters in storm-ravaged areas attempt to go to the polls today, however, they may feel the impact of Sandy in other ways as well. As Cuomo's order suggests, some poll sites still lack power. Others are flooded, damaged, cut off by impassable roads or located in buildings being used to house storm victims. And there may be other problems.

Chaos at the polls


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Voters who are lucky enough to have their polling sites remain open and fully powered may find that there are not as many poll workers on site as usual and those that are working may not be as prepared as they were in years past. The days and week before an election are critical for both election officials and the part-time, seasonal, in many cases elderly poll workers who work on Election Day. During this time, machines are tested, poll workers are trained and other critical preparatory work is conducted to insure voting day runs smoothly. Given the timing of hurricane Sandy, much of this critical workweek was lost.

Lower Voter Turnout

Since many in storm-ravaged areas are still dealing with the aftermath of the storm, we may see a lower voter turnout in those areas. This is unlikely to affect the Electoral College, since New York, Connecticut and New Jersey are not swing states. But it could affect the down-ballot races.

If turnout is depressed, for instance, might it impact the race for the Senate in Connecticut between Democrat Christopher S. Murphy and Republican Linda E. McMahon? Similarly, in several close House races such as the one in Suffolk County between Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop and Republican Randy Altschuler, or the other hard-fought contest on Staten Island between Republican Rep. Michael Grimm and Democrat Mark Murphy. There are a multitude of local races across the storm-ravaged states that may be affected.

Repeat of 2000?

One possible result of lower voter turnout is that we may see a repeat of what happened in 2000 -- but this time the Republican candidate could win the popular vote while the Democrat takes the Electoral College. President Barack Obama will still likely win the storm-hit states, but if turnout is lower, it may depress his totals nationally.

MSNBC, for instance, reports that if you look back at 2008 vote totals and assume a 15 percent reduction in the turnout in those communities in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island most impacted by the storm, it is possible that the president can lose 340,000 votes. While he could still claim the Electoral College, the depression of his popular vote share would raise the prospect of a repeat of the 2000 election.

Delays in Vote Counting

Given that some polling sites are being relocated, it's likely election officials will see an increase in provisional balloting. Given power outages, we may also see an increase in paper ballots that are deposited in locked boxes as opposed to scanned on site. The ballots will then have to be moved to a central location for tabulation under proper observation. In both instances the result may be a delay in the vote count.

Increase in Electoral Challenges

In the wake of the 2000 election, some observers began to talk about a "Floridafication of elections" -- a reference to the court challenges that followed the contest, a number which has only increased in each subsequent election.

Even before superstorm Sandy hit, both the Democratic and Republican parties had been preparing for a close election that may be decided not at the ballot box but in a court of law. In preparation, both campaigns dispatched thousands of lawyers to polling sites across the nation and asked them to be on the lookout for any issue that may support their case should a recount or litigation occur. Sandy only increases the number of issues that those looking for litigation possibilities may identify.

Wake-up Call

One very positive way in which Sandy could impact the election is if it serves as a wake-up call to Congress. Our election date, which is set by congressional statute, does not contain any provisions for disasters, natural or otherwise. We need only to ask ourselves what we would have done if the storm had hit just one week later than it did? The results to our elections would have been catastrophic -- and Congress shouldn't wait for a disaster to strike before it takes action.

Jeanne Zaino is interim dean of the School of Arts & Science and a professor of political science at Iona College.

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