Experts: Team Obama Should Root for Hurricane Sandy to Interrupt Election

An election interrupted by a natural disaster would be a "carnival," experts say.


A woman walks along the ocean in blustery winds as the outerbands of Hurricane Sandy hit Miami.

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It's been called "snowicane" and "worse than the perfect storm," and it could knock out power in the mid-Atlantic through Election Day.

Hurricane Sandy hasn't even made it past the Bahamas yet, but Sandy, or any natural disaster around Election Day, could wreak extreme havoc on the election, experts say.

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Political scientists have long studied the effects of rain and inclement weather on voter turnout and, not surprisingly, have found many people would rather stay at home than brave the weather. But more extreme storms or natural disasters that affect an entire state or region could turn a mild inconvenience into a huge mess.

That's because there are few federal election procedure laws, Robert Pastor, co-director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management says. Election process is generally left up to state or local governments, who Pastor says are "least capable of handling a statewide or regional disaster."

Most states have contingency plans in case a state of emergency is declared on Election Day. In Virginia, which could be hit hard by Sandy, Governor Bob McDonnell can postpone the election for up to 14 days, leading to all sorts of logistical issues.

If, for instance, the election came down to a late-voting Virginia "there'd probably be an outlandish intervention of Super PAC money as well as regular campaign spending," says John Hudak, a governance studies fellow at Brookings. "It would be quite the carnival . . . you'd have a very serious constitutional situation occurring."

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It'd also represent a field day for lawyers. Congress has the power to formally protest Electoral College votes from states they feel are tainted, as long as one member from each house agrees to bring it to a vote. If a majority of both houses vote to reject the votes from a certain state, they are thrown out.

"If you have a situation where [a] state has delayed its voting and that one had an impact on the outcome, we'd see a movement to reconsider those votes," he says. For the sake of sanity, let's hope it doesn't happen."

In Hurricane Sandy's case, early predictions are suggesting the storm may make landfall during the early part of next week, so the initial impacts of the storm are likely to have subsided by Nov. 6. But if power remains out through Election Day, as some experts are predicting, there could be residual effects on the election.

Most, but not all states require backup paper ballots at polling stations that use electronic voting machines. Says Pastor: "If there is a region wide natural disaster that shuts down power, there's a high-probability that we will lose votes. In a close election, that'll ensure there will be serious electoral disputes."

Pastor says a natural disaster that impacts the election would "stretch the fabric of American Democracy to the point of being torn" because, in many cases, local disputes over voting "would be addressed in an area where one party is largely dominant and the rules are extremely weak."

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So far, American elections have been fairly natural disaster-free. Hudak says there have been some "small scale issues" with blizzards in the upper plains and Rocky Mountain states in previous elections. With any luck, that streak will continue in 2012. But even if Sandy isn't catastrophic, inclement weather throughout the country could have a more predictable impact on the election.

According to a recent survey by the Weather Channel, 35 percent of undecided voters say bad weather will have a "moderate to significant" impact on whether they vote, compared to 27 percent of Democrats and 20 percent of Republicans.

Though those numbers appear to favor former governor Mitt Romney, Hudak says team Obama should be praying for rain.

"Obama has been effective at getting voters to vote early, so anything affecting turnout on Election Day is likely to be bad news for Romney," he says. Voting during a storm is also easier for urban voters—a group that overwhelmingly supports Obama—who often have a shorter distance to travel to polling sites than rural voters. "It would certainly set up a benefit to the president if a natural disaster did interrupt voting."