Sandy, Why Are You So Blue?

For all the speculation about the effect of Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath on the election, one important aspect has gotten surprisingly little attention: How many people will be unable to vote because of power outages, floods, and impaired transportation systems? How many will be deterred from voting because they are dealing with serious dislocations in their lives? And what new forms of Republican mischief will all this invite?

Other things being equal, President Obama seems to have been the winner so far because of his impressive handling of the crisis. Chris Christie surely helped on the image front.

But other things are not equal. Four days before the election, at least three million Americans are without power. And so are thousands of neighborhood polling places.

Bus and subway lines are not fully operating, and there are gas shortages, especially in New Jersey. Both factors raise obstacles to people getting to the polls.

Hundreds of thousands of people—conceivably more than a million—may not be able to vote in their usual polling place. Some may not bother to vote at all.

As always, lower-income voters, who tend to favor Democrats, have fewer options and backup plans than more affluent voters. Any competent political scientist will confirm that it’s always a challenge to persuade lower-income citizens that voting can make a difference in their lives. The aftermath of the storm is just one more obstacle to full participation.

Last-minute shifts in polling venues are both confusing to voters and to local election officials, many of whom are volunteers. People who registered may not show up on lists if they are voting outside their usual location, leading to more ballot challenges than usual, even without Republican skullduggery.

Some jurisdictions are printing up paper ballots as a fallback, but the preparations seem surprisingly lackadaisical. At the very least, all of this introduces new uncertainty and new opportunities for ballot challenges. 

Under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, passed after the 2000 election debacle, federal law requires local officials to permit provisional voting if there is some question about whether a citizen is entitled to cast a ballot. But provisional voting invites legal appeals, and God help us if the number of challenged ballots in a key swing state exceeds the margin separating the candidates. Worst case, we could see the courts getting involved, with ominous echoes of the Supreme Court’s theft of the 2000 election.

It may seem comforting to Democrats that most of the hardest-hit states are safely blue. But think again. Although Obama seems narrowly ahead in the projected electoral count, the popular vote seems to be almost a tie. To win it, Obama needs to roll up big margins in states deep blue like New York—where turnout could well be depressed. He would of course still be president if he won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote. But in terms of the national psychology (and his own self-confidence as a fighter), Obama would have more of the appearance of a mandate if he won the popular vote.

One of the hard hit states, Pennsylvania, is still close enough that Republicans are throwing money into it. At this writing, between 250 and 300 Pennsylvania polling places are still without power, along with 307,000 Pennsylvania citizens. On balance, any fallout from the storm that depresses turnout is not good for Democrats.

Mercifully, the talk from earlier in the week that a state might actually try to postpone Election Day has faded. It’s clear that only Congress has the right to set Election Day. If elections were not postponed during the Civil War, it’s unthinkable that they’d be postponed a week after a hurricane. Even The Wall Street Journal editorial page discouraged the idea of delaying the election (maybe because Obama’s lead is widening?)

But after what we’ve seen in the past several elections in Republican voter-suppression efforts, never estimate the cynicism of the GOP or its appetite for fishing in troubled waters. The best antidote to all of this is a big general turnout and a stormproof margin of Democratic victory.

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