President Obama won high marks from voters for his handling of Sandy. But as the cleanup effort enters its fourth day, some of the president’s backers are expressing concern: With millions still lacking power, could the storm make voting more difficult, dampening Democratic turnout in key swing states? After all, voters who lack power may have other things on their mind besides politics—if their polling places are even open.
New Jersey and New York, where the brunt of Sandy’s impact has been felt, are almost certainly headed for Obama’s column anyway. But Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia—all three key swing states—have also been hit. What’s the likely impact?
As of Thursday afternoon, there remained nearly 97,000 customers without power in the presidential election’s single most important state. Around 55,000 of those are in Cuyahoga County, which contains Cleveland, and which provided nearly one in every six Obama votes in 2008. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow raised concerns Wednesday night about the storm’s potential impact on voting in Ohio. And Ohio Democrats tell MSNBC.com they’re concerned about the rate at which power is being restored to the northeast of the state, which also includes the Democratic strongholds of Trumbull and Mahoning counties. Adding to the problem, Ohio has early, in-person voting, meaning outages this week could have an impact on voting even if power is restored across the state before Tuesday.
But election officials and Democrats on the ground don’t sound overly worried. Jane Platten, the director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, told MSNBC.com that though early voting this week has been down slightly from 2008—by about 1000 votes per day—there’s little evidence to attribute that to the storm. Platten explained that most of the county residents who still lack power are in the further western suburbs. Residents of those areas, she said, don’t tend to make up the early voting population, which is dominated by people who live in the city of Cleveland itself, and the inner-ring suburbs.
As for Election Day, Platten said she doesn’t anticipate major problems. Of the county’s 423 voting locations total, 372 have power, and the board is working to get the remainder up and running over the next few days.
“I think this is going to shake out before Tuesday,” she said. “If we get another storm, then I’ll be worried.”
Stuart Garson, chair of the Cuyahoga County Democrats, also isn’t too concerned about Sandy’s impact. He told MSNBC.com he’s not hearing from constituents about problems getting to the polls or about a lack of power at polling locations, and hasn’t seen dampened volunteer participation.
“From our perspective, I do not see this as an issue in the election,” Garson said.
Here, where Obama is favored but Mitt Romney has been making a late play, far more people still lack power—around 384,000, as of Thursday afternoon. Of those, nearly half are in the Democrat-heavy Philadelphia area. PECO, the utility company for southeastern Pennsylvania, has said some residents of suburban Montgomery and Bucks counties might not have service restored until next week. All nine of the counties with the most outages voted for Obama in 2008. That year, he won the state by 310,000 votes, and his margin is expected to be smaller this time around.
Gov. Tom Corbett has said he’ll work with the utilities to make sure every polling place in the state has power by election day, though that could be a tall order. Emergency paper ballots have also been readied in many counties. Corbett’s administration does not have a record of working to make voting easier, but his office did announce Thursday that in 30 counties hit by Sandy, it’s extending the deadline for absentee ballots until Monday.
Only around 7000 Virginia customers are without power. But the state does allow in-person absentee voting, and at least nine communities—including several in the Democratic stronghold of northern Virginia—were closed for such voting this week. But Gov. Bob McDonnell has said that ensuring power for polling places on Election Day will be the priority, and most observers don’t expect there to be significant problems.
In other words, it appears unlikely that voting problems caused by Sandy could have a decisive impact on any of the swing states. But here’s something else to consider: Already, there’s been speculation that Obama could win the electoral college while losing the popular vote, and some on the right—perhaps forgetting what happened in 2000—are claiming that in such a scenario, he’d lack a mandate to govern. Sandy could make that scenario even more likely, by reducing Democratic turnout in storm-ravaged New Jersey and New York, without affecting the electoral college. At the very least, it appears likely to eat into Obama’s popular vote totals.
So Sandy might not affect who wins the election, but it could well have an impact on how those results are interpreted.