Election Day is just two days away. The cost of Hurricane Sandy to the region is estimated to be around $60 billion. While the clean up crawls forward, tensions in the Northeast are running at an all time high. Many officials are now stating publicly that this untimely storm has had and will have adverse and unexpected consequences for the outcome of the presidential race.
In New Jersey, Connecticut, and parts of New York, voters will find it more difficult than usual to cast a ballot. Widespread damage from the storm and a lack of basic services is creating an organizational nightmare for election officials who must find adequate polling stations and resources to accommodate voters. In New Jersey, which absorbed the storm surge along its coast, state officials are finding other, novel means for voters to cast their ballots. Gov. Chris Christie announced yesterday that displaced citizens, and those living in areas hardest hit by the storm, may be able to vote this year by email ballot, an extreme measure for what many see as extreme circumstances.
Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno of New Jersey said voters may find polling stations at military trucks dispersed across the state with “a well-situated national guardsman and a big sign saying, ‘Vote Here.’”
The disruption of mail services across the Northeastern states will also slow the election process. In addition to absentee and mail-in ballots that are either delayed or gone missing, election officials are bracing for a larger influx of paper ballots that must be counted. All of these post-storm consequences are likely to delay the counting of votes and the certification of elections.
Even thought the states most affected by the storm sit firmly in President Obama’s column, some pundits are predicting that lower than average voter turnout in this region, increasing the likelihood of splitting the electoral college and popular vote. That scenario has been a popular one touted in policy and media circles the last few weeks as the race between Obama and Romney closed to a dead heat.
The President has pulled head slightly in some of the important swing states, but close polls show that America is still a nation more divided than ever by partisan lines—even during a time of national crisis.
Last year, Hurricane Irene was promoted by meteorologists and media-hype as the “storm of the century” but failed to develop the promised punch. This year, Sandy did not fail to deliver. The Category I hurricane slammed into New Jersey and New York, causing heavy damage and widespread flooding. There were also power disruptions across several states, leaving millions without electricity. Public officials estimate it will take days, possibly weeks, to restore the power grid.
Parts of lower Manhattan remain underwater today, as the tidal surge from Sandy deluged the coasts of New York and New Jersey.
Meanwhile, financial markets faced an unscheduled interruption on Monday and Tuesday as Wall Street shut down to brace for Sandy’s onslaught. The emergency conditions also disrupted the election as President Obama left the campaign trail to return to Washington Sunday night. In the early hours of Monday morning he declared New Jersey and New York and other parts of the Northeast federal disaster areas, and issued executive orders to ensure FEMA acted quickly to provide states with much needed resources. Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York praised the quick actions of President Obama and federal relief agencies.
The specter of Hurricane Katrina lurked in the background. The Bush Administration’s failure in 2005 to handle that crisis speedily and competently led to widespread criticism of both President Bush and FEMA. Former Gov. Mitt Romney is on the record stating that responsibility for large natural disasters should devolve on states and private actors, but that untenable position is viewed with skepticism and hostility in the face of large, regional disasters affecting multiple states.
Today, President Obama toured the heavily damaged region of New Jersey’s shoreline with Gov. Christie, leaving the campaigning to former President Clinton and others who have stepped up their efforts in the last week to get out the vote in key swing states such as Ohio and Florida. In addition to disrupting campaign events, the lasting damage of the hurricane will make polling impossible in some places before the election. Many pundits and pollsters alike are bemoaning this event, but the disruption of both financial markets and polling can also be viewed as a timely reminder that Americans can be bipartisan, especially during times of national crises.
It remains to be seen whether adequate power is restored and weather conditions permit voters to get to the polls on election day next Tuesday, raising concerns that the storm might tilt the election in favor of one candidate or another in some important states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.