What happens if New York and New Jersey can't vote in the presidential election?

Summary:Scheduled to occur just one week after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Northeast, will the American presidential election be able to go forward on time? ZDNet Government's David Gewirtz shares his analysis.

I don't think my phone has been silent for ten minutes all weekend. Between the robocallers trying to get my Florida vote, my friends in New York and New Jersey reporting in from Sandy recovery, and friends everywhere wondering about what happens if Northeasterners can't vote, I feel like my phone has been surgically mounted to my ear.

If you think both houses of Congress could come together and agree to change anything as significant as the date of the presidential election, I have a slightly storm-damaged bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

This is a good sign. While there are still so many heartbreaking stories from the tri-state area, a lot of folks are beginning to find things returning to normal. Sadly, there are still way too many people without power, way too many people with storm damage, and way too many people permanently displaced from their homes and businesses.

To quote my good friend and fellow ZDNet columnist Jason Perlow, who also used to live in New York and New Jersey, and now lives in the ironic safety of Florida , "An event like this will certainly put your priorities back into perspective."

And yet.

And yet, there is a major election tomorrow. While politics must rightly take a far back seat to disaster management, it's the decision of major elections that determine the future of our nation. That makes the election important, too.

Let me be clear here. Nothing is as urgent as making sure that everyone is okay, has food, power, water, and shelter. But as Stephen Covey once said, there's urgent and there's important. Urgent has to happen now. Important has to happen, and often has more profound long-term influence, but generally takes a back seat to urgent.

In that context then, the election is important. It would be far more convenient from the perspective of disaster relief if it were to take place in three or four weeks. But that's not our reality. In our reality, the election is tomorrow.

This brings us to the central question raised by the title of this article: what happens if New York and New Jersey can't vote?

That's not a spurious question. There is so much damage in major population centers that many people who otherwise would have voted may not be able to get to their voting centers, or their voting centers may have moved, or are now being used to house the newly homeless, or have simply been wiped off the face of the Earth.

So... what happens?

First, a few disclaimers. I am neither a lawyer nor a Constitutional historian, so I can't guarantee what I'm about to tell you is fully accurate. The remainder of this piece has to be considered strictly and spectacularly speculative.

Will the presidential election be delayed?

As far as I know, there have been no incidents of presidential elections delayed or cancelled due to natural disaster. After the events of September 11, 2001, the New York City mayorial race was delayed. As I recall, there have been other local elections that have been delayed, but none come immediately to mind. New York law does permit elections to be scheduled for a second day in situations like this, but the law has never been used before.

Article II of the Constitution gives Congress the power to set election day. The gotcha here is Section 4 gives that power to "The Congress," which is generally considered both the House and the Senate. The Republicans control the House and the Democrats control the Senate.

If you think both houses of Congress could come together and agree to change anything as significant as the date of the presidential election, I have a slightly storm-damaged bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

Then there are the campaigns themselves. Everything has been funded and budgeted to get to November 6. There's not a lot of money beyond that date to employ staff, rent facilities, conduct advertising -- anything. In addition, many people employed by the campaigns are expecting to go back to their lives on November 7 (or to start packing their stuff for the big move to the White House, if they win). Finally, these folks are zombie-level exhausted, and sustaining another month or more of campaigning would be brutal.

The bottom line is that both campaigns want this thing over, and they want it over now.

My answer, then, is no. I don't think the presidential election will be delayed. Local authorities might push for a delay and may even have the authority to make it happen, but it's quite unlikely. Were it to happen, and only for a few select voting precincts, the potential votes up in the air may still not change election results.

What happens if people can't get to their polling locations?

Many of my friends have asked this question, pointing out that mass transit is down, there is a fuel shortage, and many roads are still impassible.

Here's the thing: when America was instantiated, there were no cars, there was no mass transit, and if you wanted to vote, you walked or rode a horse. The Constitution makes no allowances for means of transit to the voting location. It just says you can vote (and it took America an absurdly long time to come to the only really American conclusion: that all adults should be eligible to vote).

It is, therefore, your responsibility to get to your designated polling location.

By the way, I'm not going to go into the problem of voter suppression, a pretty nasty stunt that all political parties have practiced over the years. There has been a lot of coverage of voter registration and identification shenanigans, and I want to stay focused on the storm-related questions.

What happens if the polling locations are closed?

This is a far different question. It's the government's responsibility to provide mechanisms for getting your vote. Now, as it turns out, a tremendous amount of work has gone on this weekend to prepare polling places and to provide alternate mechanism for voters to have their votes counted.

The New York Times has a good report on many of the efforts to set up polling places in storm-damaged areas, whether they're in new locations or even in tents.

New Jersey is taking it one step further, as NJ.com reports. Displaced New Jersey voters will have a chance to vote via email or by fax. Let's set aside completely the security and voter fraud potential of that statement, and just accept that the state is attempting to do something proactive to help make sure its residents can vote.

The bottom line is that most voters will have a way to vote. It may be difficult or inconvenient (or potentially insecure), but most voters will be able to place their votes.

Next: Will a storm-related drop in turnout change the outcome of the election?

Topics: Security, Government, Government : US


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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