Hurricane Sandy shuts down absentee voting in parts of Virginia

October 30, 2012

Nine Virginia communities -- including several in Northern Virginia that were key to President Obama's victory in the commonwealth in 2008 -- remained closed for in-person absentee voting Tuesday in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. But the party line among Republicans and Democrats on whether the curtailment would hurt the presidential campaigns remained a hearty "not really" and "who knows."

“The tactical impact in Virginia is nil,” said Ray Allen, a GOP strategist in Richmond who works for Senate candidate George F. Allen (no relation). “Very few people lost power. All the ads are still running. The campaigns are coming back in full-time to campaign this week. You had a day with no in-person absentee -- that’s just not that
big a deal. I’m looking out my window and it’s not even raining!”

A more acute undercurrent of concern coursed through Democrats, who see early and absentee voting as a crucial part of their strategy.

"I'm quite concerned," said Frank O'Leary, the Democratic treasurer of Arlington County and author of an electronic newsletter on voter turnout in his community. "Good weather doesn't improve turnout, but bad weather does diminish it."

In 2008, Obama won with absentee voters by more than 120,000 votes -- more than half his total margin of victory in Virginia. Voters in the commonwealth are nowhere near on course to repeat that record-breaking turnout. According to data assembled by the Virginia Public Access Project, absentee voting is down about 30 percent.

David Poole, who heads VPAP, said one reason for reduced turnout could be the lack of news headlines warning voters to avoid long lines on Election Day by voting absentee.

Obama's campaign offers a different spin, though: Advisers say absentee voting is stronger in communities that voted for the president four years ago than it is in those that went for Sen. John McCain. Even at the precinct level, Obama carries the advantage, these advisers say.

But Republicans say the lack of enthusiasm overall for early voting can only be construed as an advantage for them.

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has urged local registrars to extend hours later this week and on Saturday for in-person, absentee voting. (Virginia does not offer no-excuses early voting; voters may vote absentee, either by mail or in person, only if they meet one of a series of qualifying conditions such as being out of town or having to
commute to work on election day).

Campaign officials on all sides say those extra hours should neutralize the ill-effects of Sandy on voter turnout Monday and Tuesday. Some Democrats even say that evening hours later in the week will do more good than Sandy did harm because absentee voting is typically not that strong during weekday work hours.

Meanwhile, campaign operations were resuming normalcy Tuesday across Virginia. Both candidates are expected to appear in the state later this week, as is former president Bill Clinton on behalf of Obama.

“Where it is safe, some offices are reopening today and grassroots persuasion and GOTV efforts will continue,” said Obama spokeswoman Marianne Von Nordeck. “As of noon today, all of OFA-VA’s Northern Virginia offices are open.”

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