How Will We Vote If There's A Disaster On Election Day?

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In a briefing after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast on Tuesday, a reporter asked New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the question that was probably on many minds: What about Election Day?  "It doesn't matter a lick to me at the moment,” Christie responded. “I've got bigger fish to fry." Theoretically, a week will give governments enough time to clear roads and restore power so voting is possible next Tuesday. But if Sandy had hit a week later, how would people have voted?

Experts tell NPR that there is no contingency plan or law that dictates what should happen if a major natural disaster strikes on Election Day. Many states have provisions that focus on local effects—like moving polling places to neighboring precincts—that could conceivably be used to reschedule an election. But according to the Congressional Research Service, “The Constitution does not provide in express language any current authority for a federal official or institution to ‘postpone’ an election for federal office.”

Postponing the vote, whether in a single city, state or across multiple states, would likely skew the results of a national election. And in the event of a huge natural disaster, not only will it be difficult for voters to actually traverse roads in order to vote, but state and local officials will have many other priorities than ensuring that voting centers remain open and properly staffed.

There are some options that could take the pressure off, like early voting. But many states don’t offer in-person early voting, which has become its own political issue (some states are trying to discourage the practice). And, says North Dakota Senator Ray Holmberg, “Elected officials are reluctant to take on the task of canceling the election and being accused of doing that for partisan purposes.”

While it would undoubtedly be smarter to have a plan in place should an event like Sandy occur on or just before Election Day, Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of Election Officials, isn’t hopeful that we’ll get one. "We'll ignore it until it happens, and when it happens, we'll figure it out," he told NPR. "It's not the best way to go about doing something like this." Bottom line: In the event of an Election Day disaster, officials will be left scrambling.