We’re four days out from an election, and four days behind a hurricane that smashed into the Northeast. Millions of homes remain without power, though it’s slowly coming back online. Minds are focused on rescue and recovery. How exactly will this region shift into an election footing next Tuesday?
The first question concerns the logistical aspects. Brad Friedman credibly connects the multitude of power outages to the fact that electronic voting machines require, you know, power.
The outages persist in a number of states which force the majority of their voters to use 100% unverifiable electronic voting machines to cast their votes at the polls on Election Day. If power is out at the polling place on Election Day in those states, voters may not be able to cast their vote at all.
As we warned before Sandy barreled ashore earlier this week, the ability of voters to vote at all — presuming polling places are not flooded and voters are able to get to them — is imperiled by states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and even Ohio, all of which force all, or some of their voters to vote on systems which simply do not work if they do not have power.
This is mitigated by the rise of early voting in many states, in particular Ohio and Maryland. However, Pennsylvania holds no early voting, and it’s very difficult to get an absentee ballot (it requires an excuse). Perhaps the nature of the storm will spur some changes to this format, but if you want to know why the Romney campaign is making a last-ditch effort in Pennsylvania, it could be attributed to the overwhelming majority of votes which take place on Election Day in that state.
There’s also no early vote most of the Mid-Atlantic and New England, including New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Delaware and Virginia. So the area most affected by the storm is also the area most lacking in a mitigating factor from early voting. It magnifies the value of Election Day, and it’s really backward. The Northeast is the only part of the country which has a majority of states holding no early voting.
Elections officials in these states are talking about using backup generators and batteries. What they should do between now and Tuesday is print out millions of paper ballots. The election of not just the President, but thousands of Congressional, state and local seats, should not come down to whether ConEd can fix its transformers, or whether emergency generators (which should be powering homes and not election sites) work. The Piitsburgh Post-Gazette says that they will have enough paper ballots on site for 20-25% of registered voters. That’s not enough.
You cannot predict a hurricane to overturn a perfectly calibrated voting process. But that’s why you need safeguards in place, like spreading out voting over a longer time frame, allowing for easier absentee balloting, and not relying on electricity to cast a ballot. The numbers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in particular could look a little strange on Election Night. That’s aside from the fact that desperate residents who lost everything in the storm may not be so interested in their civic duty.