Will Sandy Wreak Havoc on Election Day?

As hard-hit states scramble with contingency plans, officials promise that election day will go on—but not without hitches

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Voters cast their ballots as they participate in early voting at the Silver Spring Civic Building in Silver Spring, Md., Nov. 2, 2012.

Hurricane Sandy has already downed power grids, brought transportation to a standstill and killed Halloween. Her path of destruction is far from over, though. Just on the crest of recovery’s horizon is November 6—election day. A campaign cycle already marked by early and absentee voting debates now has another challenge. How will voters in the worst-affected regions punch their ballots?

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Above all else, people in the dark will need to know where to go and how to get there. In New York City, polling locations are mostly within walking distance. Thomas Connolly, Deputy Director of Public Information at New York State Board of Elections, told TIME that the state is ensuring that areas with easily-accessible voting booths will be functional and will have extended hours. New York also postponed the deadline for submitting absentee ballots by mail or fax from this past Tuesday to Friday. Voters can apply for an absentee ballot in person through Monday. Mailed absentee ballots still must be postmarked by Monday.

In-person voters without electricity will go to their known polling place, so the state is trying to keep as many open as possible after assessing their usability. “Once we know a building is structurally sound, we work with state agencies to get them logistical needs—emergency lights, tents, generators,” Connolly said. Hard-hit areas like Breezy Point and the Rockaways will likely have tents equipped with generators as poll sites, NY Daily News reported. All New Yorker City residents can use this polling site locator to find their location.

More suburban areas in Westchester and Long Island counties will have to rely on the local press for updates, according to Connolly. “We are trying as a state to have all of the information on our website, and we have been advocating that local county boards do the same,” he said. “County boards should reach out through local media and we will provide them with signage posted at old locations to redirect voters as to where they should be going.” In Burlington County, New Jersey, officials are enabling reverse 911 calls and radio stations to send election information to voters without power.

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Connolly told TIME that he’s confident that most impassable roads in New York will be cleared by election day. The Republican party of New York’s 1st Congressional district, whose seat is up for election this Tuesday, will run buses to drive voters to their polling places, Donna Weir, Republican candidate Randy Altschuler’s campaign manager, stated. That district, which spans most of Long Island’s Suffolk County, has a majority Republican population. Fifty percent of Long Island’s LIPA power company customers are still without power as of Thursday, and much of the county is grappling with fuel shortages and power outages at gas stations.

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In New Jersey, where roads are still riddled with detours and closures, state officials are recommending taking New Jersey transit buses to polling places. Laura Kirkpatrick, Public Information Officer for Monmouth County in New Jersey, added that elections officials will bring vote-by-mail applications to shelters for displaced individuals. She stated that voters are encouraged to vote at election and county clerk offices over the weekend if they are concerned about voting on Tuesday.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie is optimistic that the state will mostly have fully-powered elections. “I’d like to have the polling places powered up for next Tuesday,” Mr. Christie told reporters at a Wednesday evening press conference. “I would like that. I’m not yet to the point where I know whether we’re going to be able to do that or we’re not going to be able to do that.”

New Jersey state officials announced Thursday that if polling places are not up and running by election day that they will deploy military trucks to serve as polling places for storm-destroyed areas, Fox News reported. Additionally, New Jersey county clerks’ offices will remain open over the weekend to help process mail-in ballots. Voters can go to the offices through November 6 to fill out and submit mail-in ballots. And on Saturday Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno announced that residents displaced by the storm could also submit a mail-in ballot applications by fax or email.

Regions outside the New York metropolitan area have had to cobble together approaches, as well. In West Virginia, where Sandy-related snowfall darkened many parts of the state, contingency plans are already in motion. Secretary of State Natalie Tennant told MetroNews Talkline on Wednesday that there is likely enough time before Election Day to get power to polling places. She added that precincts may be moved on Tuesday if necessary, but that many have battery power or paper ballot backup.

Further west, thousands of people are without power in Northeastern Ohio, reports service provider FirstEnergy. The company hopes to have most of the service restored by the end of the weekend, and Cuyahoga county elections officials do not anticipate any interruptions.

But the effects of the storm may also delay getting results. “Some ballot machines may have been pre-charged and may have enough power to get through most or all of election day,” explained Doug Lewis, the executive director of the National Association of Election Officials. “If they are not pre-charged, they won’t last. The paper ballots that were created mean a big delay in accounting.” That’s an unsettling reality not only for the neck-in-neck Presidential race, but also for local elections.

The patchwork, state-by-state approach is the only option—there is no single authority that can declare emergency action for election day procedures. Although Sandy was hardly a surprise, there was a small window for preparation. That, combined with the lack of major precedent for election day disruptions makes this all very wait-and-see, Lewis said.

Thomas Connolly of the New York State Board of Elections looks to a previous, smaller-scale example as evidence that the election will go on, no matter what. “We did go through something similar last year with Irene, happened right before Primary Day, he said. “We did have to move some poll sites and do emergency ballots, but we still pulled off election day. The worst case scenario is covered by New York state law. If we get less than 25% turnout in any area, we will add an additional day of voting.”

This is, of course, if people hurting from storm damage want to vote at all. Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the League of Women Voters of New York, notes that New York ranks 47th out of 50 in voter turnout. “Folks in Breezy Point or the Jersey Shore are probably more concerned about food or water or charging their phones than voting, anyway.”

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