Widespread power outages caused by superstorm Sandy pose “a real, serious threat” of disruption to voting in Nassau County, New York’s largest suburban jurisdiction, said the county Democratic election commissioner.
Power hasn’t been restored to 90 percent of the county’s 376 polling sites, which serve 900,000 registered voters, said William Biamonte, the Democratic election commissioner. The election board has no estimate from the local utility of when electricity will be restored, he said today. Counties in New York have an election commissioner from both the Republican and Democratic parties.
The storm knocked out power to 8 million customers in the U.S. Northeast, where officials are surveying damage before deciding how to conduct voting in areas still without electric service on Nov. 6.
Without power, “using electronic voting machines will be really problematic,” Biamonte said in a telephone interview. “We don’t have an assessment of where we are” because officials “can’t get an answer of when power is going to be turned on.”
Electric power may not be restored for as long as 10 days to more than 2 million New York customers, mostly on Long Island and in New York City. Another 2.6 million customers in New Jersey and 627,000 in Connecticut were without electricity after the storm hit the region Oct. 29, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
Nassau officials are considering a plan to operate voting machines manually by letting voters mark paper ballots and place them in a locked box that is part of the unit, Biamonte said. The machines would be transported to a location with power to electronically scan the marked ballots, he said.
Long Island Power Authority can’t give an estimate of when power would be returned to all its customers because “right now we are trying to rebuild the system,” said Elizabeth Flagler, spokeswoman for the municipally owned utility that serves Nassau and neighboring Suffolk counties as well as parts of New York City. ‘The amount of damage is just overwhelming.”
Power has been restored to almost 200,000 of the utility’s 1 million customers who lost power after the storm hit, Flagler said. Before the storm, LIPA warned that it would take seven to 10 days to return service to normal for most customers, she said.
In Virginia, a swing state in the presidential race where almost 150,000 customers had no electricity yesterday, polling places are “on top of the list for restoration of power,” Justin Riemer, a spokesman for the Virginia State Board of Elections, said in an interview. “There should be no lingering outages by next week.”
Federal law sets the election for the day after the first Monday in November, under authority granted to Congress by the U.S. Constitution. A state probably could shift Election Day in response to an emergency without running afoul of federal law, as long as it did so evenhandedly, said Edward Foley, director of the election law program at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law in Columbus.
Not everyone counts the election as a top priority. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose state bore much of the furious storm’s damage, said at a Trenton news conference yesterday that he and state residents have “much bigger fish to fry” than worrying about the election.
“Let the politicians who are on the ballot worry about Election Day,” the governor said. “It’s not my problem.”
In New York, state election board spokesman John Conklin said local boards in counties affected by the storm are still assessing their polling sites to determine whether they will have power and be accessible to the public for the election.
“It’s difficult to say at this point” how many polling operations will be disrupted by power outages, Conklin said today. Local election boards “have some serious challenges” because “this is a major national disaster.”
State officials “are doing everything to make sure the disruption is minimal,” Conklin said.
Electric utilities serving New York City and Long Island are “prioritizing those areas for restoring power,” he said.
In the event of a natural disaster, New York law provides for an additional day of voting if turnout in a jurisdiction is less than 25 percent, Conklin said. Such voting must occur within 20 days of the election, he said.
The federal law says a state may deviate from the election date only if it “has failed to make a choice” of candidates on Election Day. Read literally, that suggests a state can’t decide in advance to postpone the vote, Foley said.
“But as a practical approach, I suspect that there’s some wiggle room in that statutory language,” Foley said. “I just don’t know if a court would overrule a thoughtful response” to a weather emergency.
In Connecticut, Governor Dannel Malloy extended the deadline for voter registration from Oct. 30 until tomorrow. Malloy told reporters today he may extend the deadline another day if necessary.
“Our communities are very resilient and I am confident we will be able to conduct a successful election, even in less than ideal circumstances,” Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill said in a statement.
State law allows local election officials to move polling places if Republican and Democratic registrars agree on a plan, she said.
“If a polling place needs to be moved because it’s damaged, flooded or has no electricity, that can be done,” Merrill’s spokesman, Av Harris, said in a telephone interview.
Connecticut election officials have recent experience with bad weather. Last year, downed trees from an October snowstorm knocked out power to 1 million customers in the days before the election.
“We managed to work with local election officials to find creative solutions when we needed to,” Harris said. Under a worst-case scenario, voting equipment can operate on battery power or paper ballots can be counted by hand, he said.
Like Connecticut, Massachusetts uses paper ballots that are counted by electronic scanning equipment, so ballots “could just be counted like the old days,” said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for the secretary of the commonwealth of Massachusetts. He said in a phone interview that he didn’t know of any polling places without power.
Virginia uses a variety of electronic voting equipment, including the scans used in Connecticut and Massachusetts, Riemer said.
Most U.S. counties rely on optical scanning or touch-screen voting machines that depend on electricity. Dealing with backup power for them falls largely to the counties, with little uniformity, said Gil Luria, an analyst at Wedbush Securities Inc. in Los Angeles who covers Diebold Inc. Diebold sold its U.S. voting machine unit to closely held Election Systems & Software Inc. in 2009.
“Every county has its own solution. Therefore it’s going to be very tricky to come up with a solution across the board,” Luria said.
Officials in Ohio, a key battleground in the race between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, said they don’t anticipate that power outages will interfere with voting. More than 267,000 customers in the state were without power yesterday, the Energy Department said.
“It seems like Ohio didn’t get hit as badly,” Matt McClellan, a spokesman for the Ohio secretary of state’s office, said in a telephone interview.
Most of the outages in the state occurred in Cleveland and northeast Ohio, served by FirstEnergy Corp., according to the Associated Press. Some Cleveland streets were closed because of flooding, and a section of Interstate 90 was flooded from nearby Lake Erie, AP said.
Even so, the weather didn’t interrupt early in-person voting at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, which has a generator in case the power goes off, spokesman Mike West said in a telephone interview.
Ohio election officials don’t have independent authority to extend voting beyond Nov. 6 and would need a court order to do so, McClellan said.
Elections in states have been postponed for natural or other disasters, Foley said. The New York City mayoral election in 2001 was delayed after the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. Local elections were postponed in Louisiana because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“There are backup measures -- paper ballots, absentee ballots” that could be used instead of delaying the election, Foley said. “It may be less than ideal, but, weighing the alternatives, it would be better to go forward and do the best you can.”
Utilities will concentrate on first returning power to places critical to public health and safety including hospitals, police and fire stations, according to the Edison Electric Institute, a Washington-based industry group. Then they will work on getting service to areas with the largest number of customers.
“Crews have their restoration priorities,” Rena Esposito, a spokeswoman for Public Service Electric & Gas, said in a telephone interview. “Hospitals first, then schools, and polling places are part of that priority list.”
Most polling places are in locations that will be on the priority list for power restoration, said Kenneth Burris, chief executive officer of Witt Associates, a Washington-based disaster-management consulting group.
‘I’m confident that with a presidential election coming up, local governments have identified those places that are critical to have the power back on by Nov. 6,” Burris said.
“Unless we have a catastrophic event, where polling places are destroyed, the show goes on,” Burris said.