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

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


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Please Vote!

    One aspect that might prove interesting is legal challenges arising from Sandy-related difficulties; but I suspect the worst-case Sandy scenario is a delay to the result, not actually affecting that result.
  • those affected states should not be counted

    to the electoral colege because not all the people can vote there. There should be no need for 270 electoral colege votes, just a majority.
    LlNUX Geek
    • So all of the voters in those states should be disenfranchised?

      What an insane comment!
      • they can vote again in 2016

        better not vote than having a dubious result!
        LlNUX Geek
    • This is precisely the reason why there is an electoral college

      With an electoral college in place, those electors can take the storm into consideration before they convene, and change their vote if there is evidence that the storm changed the outcome of their state's election. If anything this storm makes a good argument for an electoral college and against a national popular vote.
      Michael Kelly
  • Sorry

    1. It didn't matter anyway because the election is so close (mathematically speaking).

    2. Mandelbroth was right - 'butterfly wing flap in China altered the weather' ... and the result of the US presidential election ... resulting in the activation of SKYNET ... and the end of the human race (mathematically and cinematically speaking).

    3. "Bottom line: any storm-related drop in turnout is unlikely to change the results."
    Why did the poster post, one wonders - musta been a slack day - maybe his power was off ;-)

    4. Who knows or cares? (realistically speaking ) :-( :-( :-(

    5. "Democracy keeps on keepin' on." You mean the public votes every 5 years and then doesn't get a say in anything important for another 5 years? That assumes electing the winner in a 'too close to call' event is actually important.

    "Go to the polls tomorrow, wherever they may be, and vote."
    I live in the UK, despise all politicains and political systems (Capitalism is the least evil) ... and am too lazy to do anything about it :-(
    • OTOH

      In the UK we have a longstanding tradition .. it is customary to let off fireworks and light bonfires on November 5th ... as a celebration that many years ago one Guy Fawkes thought the best course of action was to blow up the seat of Government (Houses of Parliament)!

      Is it an ironic IT coincidence that the mask used in the film V for Vendetta (V blew up a corrupt futuristic Parliament) is also the same as that of the Anonymous hacking group?

      Another close call: do I vote or ... blow them all to smithereens.
      Tricky one that? No! I would not find it at all difficult to vote for a rebalancing of the current power bases in favour of a greener and more equitable distribution of 'wealth'.
      • "Blow them all to smithereens"

        And replace the politicians with whom?

        At least you have a functioning monarchy, allowing the ruler to step in if representative government fails completely; those of us who live in republics have no such alternative; and I really, really, really don't want a military dictatorship, which is what republics usually get in such circumstances (but sometimes you get regional or factional warlords as in Somalia or Lebanon, which is even worse).
        John L. Ries
      • At least Guy Fawkes had a plan

        According to Wikipedia, it was to replace King James with his 9 year old daughter Elizabeth under a regency. What would yours be?
        John L. Ries
    • An honest statement:

      "I live in the UK, despise all politicains and political systems (Capitalism is the least evil) ... and am too lazy to do anything about it :-("

      Many Americans feel the same way. They and you deserve what you get.
      John L. Ries
  • So, what is urgent?

    Shouldn't we gather resources around the most urgent question - Sandy relief? Instead of the election? What if the delay in the after Sandy cleanup causes an epidemia? We better have a new president and hundrends of infected people or do you prefer a 4 days election delay? ...
    • Very good questions

      @erick -- Hurricane relief must come first, if resources can't handle both. You articulated the question very well, thanks.
      David Gewirtz
  • The Constitution provides lots of flexibility

    The only thing it insists on with presidential elections is that the electors be chosen on a day specified by Congress, and that they meet to cast their ballots on a day specified by Congress. But Congress has in the past allowed certain states like Maine to choose their electors and members of Congress early, so I don't think a law allowing states to choose their electors and members of Congress late in case of a natural disaster or other emergency would raise many judicial eyebrows.

    Thus far, New York and New Jersey appear to be adjusting to the situation as it is, though I think it would be wise for the upcoming lame duck session of Congress to make specific provisions for allowing federal elections in disaster areas to be delayed at the option of the affected states (it's a good time to do it when the issue is fresh in people's minds).
    John L. Ries
    • Yay!

      I can use the word "constitution" without running afoul of the profanity filter. Much better!
      John L. Ries
    • The truth

      Hurricane sandy will only become an issue if President Obama looses since the areas affected typically vote left wing.
      • This time

        But what happens in the future if a major Republican-leaning area is knocked out by a natural disaster right before an election?

        The law of reciprocity remains in force, whether people want it or not ("as you have done unto others, so shall it be done unto you").
        John L. Ries
  • The only way it will have a real effect

    If one of these states is split, where the inland votes more blue or red than the coast, then it will matter because voter turnout has the potential to be better inland than at the coast. If it is fairly uniform, and we get a representative sample, the results will be unaffected.
    • That is true of New York

      New York City is heavily Democratic, while upstate and Long Island lean Republican. That's been true since the 19th Century.
      John L. Ries
      • RE: Long Island

        Leans Democratic since Clinton era. Traditional lily white suburban Long Islander in the 1960's and 70's's voted Republican because city Democrats were associated with the crime and grime and black people they associated with it. Democrats were also associated with the AntiVietnam war movement and LI was settled by veterans. After Giuliani not so much crime in the city to fear. Clinton was popular among the "soccer moms" and the rise Evangelical control of the Republican did not appeal to Catholic voters that dominated. And last but not least Long Island is a much more diverse place these days.
        • Thanks for the clarification

          My data appear to be out of date. Much the same has become true of San Diego (but not North County); Clinton was the first Democratic candidate for president to carry San Diego County since FDR; even Goldwater carried it narrowly in 1964.
          John L. Ries