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Sandy Could Be 'October Surprise' In U.S. Presidential Vote

Water floods shops in Manhattan, in New York City, on October 30 in the wake of Sandy.
Water floods shops in Manhattan, in New York City, on October 30 in the wake of Sandy.
Coming just a week before the November 6 U.S. presidential election, Sandy, the massive storm that has ravaged much of the northeastern United States, could be the "October surprise" that neither President Barack Obama nor Republican candidate Mitt Romney counted on.

Sandy has disrupted the campaign calendar of both Obama and Romney during the crucial final week of campaigning. Obama canceled campaign events in Florida, Ohio, and Virginia on October 29 and in Wisconsin the next day -- returning to Washington instead to monitor the storm.

Asked what effect the storm might have on the vote, Obama expressed confidence in the electoral preparations and said his focus was on responding to the storm "as quickly as possible."

"I am not worried at this point about the impact on the [presidential] election; I am worried about the impact on families and I am worried about the impact on our first responders; I am worried about the impact on our economy and on our transportation," Obama said. "The election will take care of itself next week. Right now our number one priority is to make sure that we are saving lives, that our search and rescue teams are going to be in place, that people are going to get the food, the water, the shelter that they need in case of emergency and that we respond as quickly as possible to get the economy back on track."

Romney canceled events in Ohio on October 29 and a rally the next night in New Hampshire, announcing he would cancel events across the country "out of sensitivity" for millions of people who were in the path of the storm.

Both Obama and Romney also suspended fundraising e-mails to New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the District of Columbia -- all of which were hit by the storm's high winds and heavy rains.

Obama's campaign may be boosted by praise he received on October 30 from the Republican governor of New Jersey, one of the states worst hit by the storm.

Governor Chris Christie appeared on nationally televised programs to praise Obama's response to the storm. Christie said the federal response to the storm under Obama's leadership "has been great" and that "the president has been outstanding on this."

Christie, whose name was floated in media as a possible vice-presidential choice for the Republican ticket or a candidate for the presidency in 2016, said he spoke with Obama three times by telephone on October 29 and had gotten everything he needed from the federal government -- including a speedy presidential declaration of a major disaster that has opened up federal aid to supplement state and local emergency-relief funds.

Turnout And Technology

Campaign schedule changes are just part of the unpredictability that Sandy has brought into the election.

The storm forced the cancellation of early voting in Maryland and the District of Columbia on October 29. Two days of early voting also were canceled in Virginia, one of the closest races in the country. To give voters more opportunities to cast their ballots, Virginia election officials have eased absentee voting requirements for those affected by the storm.

There also could be a reduction in the number of opinion polls issued from northeastern states during the final week before the vote.

Meanwhile, there are serious questions about how modern electronic voting technology will work in the aftermath of a disaster -- including logistical issues if voting machines should fail on election day.

In New York and New Jersey, much depends on the ability of infrastructure workers to restore knocked out electricity, telephones and Internet access. The loss of that infrastructure also could hamper voter turnout at polling stations.

Election Day?

Legal issues make it difficult for the federal government to postpone the vote. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority to change the date of a presidential election. But at this late stage, with Congress on recess, lawmakers are not likely to have the opportunity to postpone the vote if they want to.

Under U.S. federal law, members of the Electoral College that ultimately elects the U.S. president are to be chosen by a popular vote, in each state, on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

But federal law also says that if a state has held an election and "has failed to make a choice on the day prescribed by law, the electors may be appointed on a subsequent day in such a manner as the legislature of such State may direct."

Federal officials say it is up to each individual state to decide whether the election could be delayed. But while each state does have flexibility to deal with emergencies, such powers are not routinely exercised and in many states are not clearly spelled out.

Some states could decide to keep their polling stations open longer than originally scheduled or make other adjustments to polling locations. But under the Help America Vote Act, any extension of voting hours made within 10 days of the election requires the use of provisional ballots for all voters who are not already waiting at the polls when it was originally scheduled to close.

Legal scholars say it also is unclear whether a state has the authority to postpone its entire federal election in order to deal with an emergency.

If the election is postponed in some states, voters there would likely know the results from the rest of the country before casting their ballots. That would lead to enormous pressure and focus on states that could determine the outcome of the vote in the Electoral College.

No federal contingency plans have been adopted to deal with the impact that disasters could have on a federal election.

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was preparing for the possibility that the storm could disrupt next week's vote. FEMA administrator Craig Fugate told reporters on October 29 that lingering impact from the storm could affect the vote, and that FEMA's chief counsel has been working to make sure the agency has proper legal guidance.