The devastating storm that slammed into the US East Coast last week could send winds of uncertainty through today’s presidential election, narrowing an already close contest and casting doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome.
Though superstorm Sandy is unlikely to determine whether US President Barack Obama or Republican hopeful Mitt Romney wins the White House, experts said it could expose flaws in how the US conducts elections, leading to protracted legal wrangling and lingering bitterness in a country already fractured along partisan lines.
In a worst-case scenario, the storm disruption could cause Obama to lose the popular vote and still win re-election, stirring up vitriolic memories of the contested 2000 battle that allowed Republican George W. Bush to triumph over Democrat Al Gore.
Last-minute changes imposed by election officials also could further arm campaign lawyers looking to challenge the result.
At minimum, low turnout would add another wild card to an election projected to be among the closest ever. Voting could be an afterthought for hundreds of thousands of people still struggling with power outages and plummeting temperatures.
“It’s a possibility that we’ll see significant drops in turnout in some of these densely populated areas,” said George Mason University professor Michael MacDonald, a voter turnout expert.
Today’s election presents yet another headache for local officials in New York and New Jersey, which were hardest hit by the storm. Rescue workers are still recovering bodies, 1.9 million homes and businesses have no power and tens of thousands of people are without heat as temperatures fall.
Sandy, one of the most damaging storms to ever hit the US, hammered the region with 129kph winds, while walls of water overran seaside communities. At least 113 people in the US and Canada died.
Election authorities now face unprecedented challenges. In New York City, 143,000 voters have been assigned new polling stations. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Sunday called the city’s elections board “dysfunctional” and warned that it needs to clearly communicate changes to poll workers.
In New Jersey, where 25 percent of homes and businesses have no power, officials are allowing displaced voters to cast their ballots by e-mail. In battered Monmouth County, officials are spreading the word about new polling locations in at least 29 towns and setting aside paper ballots to use if electronic voting machines fail.
Legal experts said the late changes, however well-intentioned, may give the losing candidate a basis to challenge results.
The post-Sandy chaos could also expose flaws in the arcane electoral college system the US uses to elect presidents.
Candidates do not have to win the popular vote nationwide, but they must amass a majority of the 538 “electoral votes” that are awarded to each state based on population. The system was set up when the US was founded, as a compromise between slave states and free states.
Usually the electoral college winner also wins the popular vote, but in two elections — 1876 and 2000 — the results diverged, creating historic controversies.
This year, Obama is expected to handily win New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the states most impacted by the storm, but his popular vote total could fall by hundreds of thousands if large numbers of storm-hit voters in Democratic areas are unable to participate. Conceivably, Obama could win the White House while losing the popular vote.
Obama campaign officials said that they are confident the storm will not interfere with the voting process, but they intend to have legal experts on standby just in case.