Storm-affected states quickly resume early voting

The political world rapidly returned to normal Tuesday in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, as fears began to subside that the devastating storm would adversely affect the presidential election only a week away.

Both candidates paid their respects to storm victims, but that just allowed each campaign to accuse the other of politicizing the storm. As the cleanup began on Tuesday, it became clear that whatever impact the storm has on the election will likely be at the margins.

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In the wake of superstorm Sandy, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney held a \

In the wake of superstorm Sandy, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney held a "storm relief event" in Kettering, Ohio, at the same arena as his previously scheduled political rally and with the same celebrity line-up.

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As Sandy smacked the East Coast, Democrats especially had feared that early voting, a key part of their strategy to get supporters to the polls, would be slowed. There was even talk of postponing Election Day voting.

But Johnnie McLean, deputy elections administrator in North Carolina, whose coast was hit hard by the storm, said Tuesday that there is no talk about postponing the election. “The only discussion has come from reporters asking similar questions,” McLean said.

Maybe the surest sign that the storm caution was over came in Pennsylvania, where Mitt Romney’s campaign and conservative groups began buying airtime in a state that until very recently seemed very solidly in President Obama’s column. The Romney campaign said that Pennsylvania, which has not voted for a GOP nominee since 1988, represented a “unique opportunity” for the Republican candidate.

Officials in a variety of affected states said that while early voting had been delayed in some areas, most of the time was likely to be made up in the days before the Nov. 6 election. They also vowed that Election Day itself would be relatively unaffected, even as they scrambled in the hardest-hit states to make sure all voting machines would have power.

In Pennsylvania, officials said that getting all the polls open in all 67 counties on Election Day may be problematic. About 1.2 million customers in Pennsylvania lost power in the storm, and utilities warned that full restoration might be more than a week away. All of the nine counties with the bulk of the power losses went for Obama in 2008.

But in the end, officials in the Keystone State vowed there would be little or no impact at the polls next Tuesday. “Things have improved dramatically,” Ron Ruman, a spokesman for Secretary of State Carol Aichele, said Tuesday. “There could be a precinct here or there that could be impacted, but the early reports we’re hearing are pretty good.”

While Congress established the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as the date for federal elections, states are responsible for administering them. The states have some leeway in the timing of the balloting, but the legal and political terrain is so problematic that it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances to change the date.

Any governor who tried to reschedule or extend an election because of the weather would immediately be accused of partisan motivations, said Steven Huefner, professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. “There certainly would be a court fight,’’ he said.

Such a controversy could even prompt members of Congress to raise questions about the legitimacy of the electors that the state involved sent to the Electoral College. Voters at the polls next week will technically be picking electors, under the constitutionally mandated system.

No members of Congress publicly called on Tuesday for the election to be delayed.

For effects on early voting, many eyes turned to Ohio, which could determine the election’s winner. But a strong sideswipe from Sandy’s western edge did not appear to have a significant impact on the early vote. Though much of the state experienced nasty weather, including snow, rain and high winds that caused some damage and power outages in the Cleveland area, party and elections officials said they did not anticipate voting being slowed.

Some Democrats remained worried about the storm’s effect on in-person absentee voting in Virginia, where precincts in nine communities — including several in Northern Virginia that were key to Obama’s victory in the commonwealth in 2008 — remained closed Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m quite concerned,” said Frank O’Leary, a Democrat who is treasurer of Arlington County and author of an electronic newsletter on voter turnout. “Good weather doesn’t improve turnout, but bad weather does diminish it.”

Republicans said the storm’s impact would be nil, and by late afternoon Fairfax County had reopened for business, inviting voters to come from 4 to 8 p.m. to its central voting location. Fairfax was especially important in 2008; the county delivered Obama a 110,000-vote winning margin against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), nearly half of Obama’s 235,000-vote overall winning margin in the state. Absentee voting also was crucial to Obama’s election.

In Maryland and the District, where early voting had been suspended because of the storm, officials were prepared to reopen. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said early voting would resume at 8 a.m. Wednesday and that polls would remain open for 13 hours. Anyone in line as of 9 p.m. will be allowed to vote.

The D.C. Board of Elections said that early voting will resume Wednesday and that the hours would be extended until 9 p.m. this week. The eight early voting sites in the District — one in each ward — will be open from 8:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. each day through through Saturday.

Both Maryland and the District are expected to go for Obama.

In North Carolina, which polls have indicated leans toward Romney, early voting runs from Oct. 18 to Nov. 3 and seems to have suffered minimally from Sandy. Of about 300 polling places for early balloting, only three remained closed Tuesday.

Amy Gardner, Ann Gerhart, Rosalind S. Helderman, Ed O’Keefe, Felicia Sonmez and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

 
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