WASHINGTON - Constitutional scholars and legal experts agree that -- come hell or high water-- Americans will cast ballots in next week’s presidential election since only the adjourned Congress has authority to alter the timing of Election Day.
But political experts are less certain what will be the impact from the rising waters of Hurricane Sandy, a superstorm slamming into mostly Democratic states in the Northeast region this week. The only battleground states in the storm’s path are Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, with a reduced possibility of impact in the politically critical state of Ohio.
All other states in Sandy’s crosshairs are reliably blue. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney aboard Air Force One deferred Monday when reporters asked if President Barack Obama had the legal authority to delay the elections because of a natural disaster like Sandy. “I don't know the answer to that question. I think you're getting way ahead of yourself here,” Carney said. But legal experts are more certain.
“Congress, under the Constitution, has acted and has chosen that the first Tuesday after the first Monday (in November) shall be set for presidential elections,” said Mark Garber, associate dean for legal research at the University of Maryland. “Congress has never, because of weather, changed the time of an election.” So next Tuesday America will hold the best election it can.
“But people may have to be patient,” said Michael McDonald, head of the United States Election Project at George Mason University in storm-drenched Northern Virginia. “Election officials are going to have to work overtime to get the election ready. They are working under unusual circumstances.”
Both presidential candidates cancelled appearances Monday and Tuesday rather than risk appearing insensitive to voters’ anxiety. Both were also quick to disclaim any concerns over the political impact. “I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election. I’m worried about the impact on families,” Obama said after cancelling scheduled appearances in Florida.
Romney cancelled events in New Hampshire Monday and Tuesday to avoid interfering with storm response efforts. “Gov. Romney’s concern is the safety and wellbeing of those in the path of this storm, as opposed to political considerations,” said spokesman Ryan Williams.
Political experts tend to discount a major impact from the storm. “I don’t think Sandy changes things that much, although it has kept the candidates off the road in the battleground states,” said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. But he said turnout next week will likely be less than the 62.3 percent of voting-age population in 2008 or even the 60.4 percent who voted in 2004.
“Turnout this time will not be as high as 2008 or even 2004,” Gans said. “The storm will extend into Ohio and will definitely clobber Virginia and, maybe, New Hampshire. It will have an impact, but will it really effect partisanship?” McDonald, who studies the effect of new early voting laws, agreed. “The effects are probably going to be minimal. Most of the early votes (in the Northeast) are by mail and are relatively low in volume,” McDonald said. But the storm could change, perhaps subtly, voters’ emotional state.
“It’s the classic double-edged sword of governing,” said Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia. “Obama can assume a take-charge posture as the incumbent president, but he’s also responsible for all foul-ups in disaster relief. And you don’t want dissatisfied, surly people voting if you’re the incumbent.”
Romney is “left on the sidelines” expressing sympathy for storm victims. “Of course, he benefits from any lingering problems,” Sabato said.
(Contact Scripps Howard News Service Washington reporter Thomas Hargrove at email@example.com Scripps Howard reporter Bartholomew Sullivan contributed to this story.)