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.


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

Now we come to the meat of the discussion. Will the storm be a true October surprise? Will it change the outcome?

First, a science fiction moment, if you please. We've all read time travel stories where someone goes back in time, changes an event, and then no one knows the time stream has been changed except for the time traveler.

Since we're all living in this particular time stream and none of us work for the Federation Department of Temporal Investigations, we're unlikely to know if the outcome would have been any different than whatever it is in this reality.

That said, here's some good, high-quality, seat-of-my-pants speculative guessing.

In the Northeast, every state except Maine is a winner-take-all state. That means that if one candidate gets the majority of the popular vote, regardless of the size of the turnout, that state's Electoral College votes go to that candidate. In theory, then, if there are only three voters in New York, and two vote for one candidate, that candidate gets the entire state's ginormous treasure chest of electoral votes.

New York has almost always been blue. New Jersey is a bit more of a toss-up, but not much. New Jersey can almost always be counted on to go blue. The same is true of Connecticut.

Normally, the same could be said for Massachusetts, except that the Codfish State did elect Republican Mitt Romney governor and just recently elected a Republican, Scott Brown, to take over the bluest of blue Senate seats, that of the late Ted Kennedy. Most pre-Sandy polling seems to have indicated that Massachusetts was leaning towards Obama anyway, and it's relatively unlikely Sandy will impact the results in the state.

So the real question is whether the hurricane's impact can sway New York or New Jersey. Some theorize that residents are so upset with the handling of the emergency that they're likely to vote against type. Others theorize that since the President handled the emergency so well, and cuddled so cozily with Republican governor Chris Christie, that even more people are likely to vote for the President.

Here's the thing: New Yorkers and New Jerseyans are among the most stubborn, willful people on the face of the planet. I know. I'm one of them. Almost everyone had pretty much made up his or her mind prior to the storm, and it's extremely unlikely that those votes will change.

What is possible is that the popular vote count, which is normally quite large in these two states, will be smaller. But the ratio is still almost 100% likely to score the Electoral College haul for the President, storm or no storm.

Bottom line: any storm-related drop in turnout is unlikely to change the results.

What about people in the rest of the country? Will it change their vote?

That's an interesting question. Most people are so stuck in their own ideologies that they're very unlikely to change their votes.

But all indications are that this race is quite close. For the past week, President Obama has been flying around, using the backdrop of Marine One and Air Force One, and generally looking presidential. No matter how good Mitt Romney may be, there's just no substitute for the marketing power of the presidency.

The big question is how the suddenly buddy-buddy nature of Christie and Obama will play out nationally.

My guess is that it might move the needle, but if it does, it will only be a blip on the overall election.

Will we see a delayed decision repeat of the 2000 election?

In other words, will the election be too close to call? Will there be recounts? Will there be Supreme Court involvement? Will the House decide the election? Will we have an answer before Christmas?

Probably not. Almost definitely. I don't think so. Can the House decide anything? Yeah, probably.

Although there are a few Electoral College scenarios that place the race too close to call, those are statistically unlikely, and certainly the storm results won't have an impact.

In any election so divided, and with so many potential election irregularities, there are likely to be isolated recounts. But we're unlikely to see hanging chads again, mostly because recounts only matter when a state's results are too close to call otherwise.

Since this race is unlikely to be too close to call, the involvement of the Supremes or the House (other than bloviating) is unlikely.

My guess -- and to be fair, it is a guess -- is we'll know the answer by about 1am ET on Wednesday morning. Worst case, sometime mid-day Wednesday.

Democracy keeps on keepin' on

So, there you go. Sandy may have dealt a devastating blow to many of those living in the Northeast, but she probably won't do much damage to America's ability to elect our leaders.

Go to the polls tomorrow, wherever they may be, and vote.

ZDNet Hurricane Sandy coverage:

ZDNet Government's coverage of Election 2012:

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