The Politics of Frankenstorm

Between checking The Weather Channel and dashing out to buy new batteries for flashlights, most folks along the Eastern Seaboard are already hunkered down in preparation for the Storm, a.k.a. Frankenstorm, a.k.a. Hurricane Sandy. Making their way to the polls is probably not at the top of anyone's list.

But thousands of elections officials and campaign workers—not to mention the Romney and Obama campaigns—have had their well-laid plans turned upside down, at least for the next couple of days. Four battleground states will feel some of the storm's brunt—Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and New Hampshire.

Election officials hope there will be enough time to clear debris and get power to polling places before November 6. But while elections officials are scrambling to ensure that people will be able to cast ballots in spite of flooding and power outages, pundits and strategists are left grappling with a key question: Just how might Frankenstorm and its lingering effects affect the outcome of the presidential race?

For both Romney and Obama, it's a mixed bag. Obama gets to be presidential while the campaign is suspended, which might be a good thing if the situation is well-handled. (FEMA could be the president's best campaign asset over the next few days, or his worst enemy.) But a study has found that during droughts and flooding, the president’s party suffers. Evidently, if an incumbent can't summon the powers of the gods to stop bad weather, voters will hold him or her to account. According to political science professors Larry Bartels and Chris Achen, Al Gore might have gotten 2.8 million more votes had the weather been better around the country in 2000.

Over at the Monkey Cage, John Sides notes that the jury’s still out on the overall impacts of weather disasters on election results. Voters sometimes reward presidents for a proactive and successful response to the situation—but the opposite also holds, and Obama could face negative repercussions if plans get botched. Power outages will also mean Romney's (and Obama's) millions of dollars of last-minute television ads, particularly in Virginia, won’t help as much as the candidates might have hoped. Both campaigns have had to cancel events in Virginia. It's hard to know who this hurts more—possibly Romney, since Obama has a narrow lead there, while Romney may now have more trouble making up ground.

Obama has stopped campaigning altogether to focus on the crisis. That could have opened the door for Romney to rally troops in other swing states like Florida and Colorado, but the GOP candidate opted to cancel his campaign events as well, presumably so he wouldn't appear to be taking advantage of the situation or commit a gaffe during a sensitive time.

For Democrats, who want to see high turnouts, the bigger worry is that the storm could keep some polling places closed. Evacuations from the battleground states could also tamp down turnout, if folks can't return by next Tuesday.

While the campaigns strategize, elections officials are having to work hard to hold the elections at all. Of the states most impacted by the hurricane, only North Carolina, Maryland, and Vermont allow early voting in-person voting—which has, in some places, ground to a halt. The rest largely must focus on getting things ready for next week.

North Carolina cancelled its weekend voting hours in several coastal polling locations, as winds and rain began to swirl, with other locations shut down for Monday. Maryland’s Governor O’Malley took things a step farther; after declaring a state of emergency, he stopped all early voting. Across the East Coast, government buildings and schools are closed in preparation for the storm.

Virginia doesn’t offer early voting, but it does have a flexible absentee voting policy that allows many state residents to vote ahead of time—which means the state needs solid plans to deal with in-person absentee polling places. The state Board of Elections already put out a memo urging polling places to stay open even as other government buildings shut down, and Governor Bob McDonnell announced that polling places will be prioritized alongside hospitals and police stations to get power back first. However, in many of the coastal cities, including Virginia Beach and Portsmouth, even the hardiest of elections administrators have had to close for Monday at least. Don Palmer, the secretary of the state Board of Elections, says that many polling locations have back-up generators as well as batteries to keep voting machines going.  And if all else fails, there’s always a paper-ballot option—though that could lead to a messy election night.

“We’ll have at least a week to restore power,” Palmer says. In the meantime, he’s loosened up absentee requirements, so that those who aren’t sure whether they’ll be back at home on Election Day can still cast in-person ballots before Election Day. He’s also considering adding additional hours later in the week so that those who want to vote absentee in person can still do so before Election Day.

While the magnitude of this storm is exceptional, some states have experience in planning elections around dangerous weather. Last year, Virginia experienced an earthquake on Election Day, while a freak snowstorm in late October last year gave elections officials in Connecticut a dress rehearsal for what they may face this year. Av Harris, spokesman for the secretary of the state’s office in Connecticut, says the governor’s office offered a series of executive orders to help give officials more flexibility: The voter-registration deadline was extended all the way till next Monday, and elections officials worked in tandem with electric companies to get power back on fast. “We're ironically pretty well versed in dealing with emergencies in elections,” Harris says.

Pennsylvania, another battlegrounder, isn’t quite so well-practiced in emergency situations. Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania secretary of state, says elections administrators had not yet “made any definitive plans or contingencies” for large-scale problems. As in other states, if individual polling places are damaged, an election worker will direct voters to an alternate location—though the last-minute changes could certainly cause confusion. However, things would get much stickier if entire counties couldn’t hold elections.

Early voting expert Michael McDonald, a political science professor at George Mason University, notes perhaps one of the least likely but most disturbing possibilities: What if Pennsylvania could not hold elections on November 6? The Electoral College decision need not be decided by a state’s popular vote; it could also be determined by a state legislature. “You could have a situation where the Republican-controlled legislature of Pennsylvania chooses the electors,” says McDonald. But, he notes, that “that’s like pure fantasy-land at this point.”

But Ruman, like others, is optimistic that there’ll be enough time after the storm. “We're hoping within a week everything will be back to normal,” he says. He says that no one is even considering the possibility of the legislature making the decision instead of citizens.

The hurricane—and accompanying electoral drama—has increased calls in New England states to offer more voting options to relieve the pressure on Election Day. In Connecticut, Harris hopes the storm will reinforce the need for early voting. In North Carolina, for instance, more than 1.1 million people have already voted in the state, which will ease pressure as the state copes with the storm and Election Day. Harris hopes to see more options in Connecticut. “The democratic will,” he says, “should not be held hostage to the storm.”

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