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Voting Amid the Devastation From Sandy

Hurricane Sandy has a real chance of affecting turnout and ballot counting in the New York metropolitan area, where several competitive House and Senate races will be decided.

Election officials have vowed to minimize obstacles to voting in states hit by the storm. And while the effect on the presidential race is expected to be minimal in a region that overwhelmingly supports President Barack Obama, that may not be the case in Connecticut’s Senate race between Rep. Christopher Murphy (D) and former WWE CEO Linda McMahon (R). Roll Call rates the contest as Leans Democratic, and turnout could be key to either candidate’s success.

Three competitive House districts were also particularly hard-hit by Sandy: New York’s eastern Long Island 1st district, held by Rep. Tim Bishop (D); New York’s Staten Island-anchored 11th district, held by Rep. Michael Grimm (R); and New Jersey’s coastal and inland 3rd district, held by Rep. Jon Runyan (R).

So far it appears unlikely that the devastation will swing voters away from re-electing those incumbents, who are currently favored to win. But the parties will be keeping an eye on how each district digs out from the deadly storm and how quickly powered is restored.

Bishop is in a rematch of his 2010 race with businessman Randy Altschuler (R). The Democrat squeaked out a victory last cycle by only 593 votes. Before the storm, he was poised to win by a bit more comfortable margin this time around, boosted by a presidential year turnout.

Grimm led his Democratic challenger — an extremely weak opponent — by 18 points in a poll released Thursday by Siena College. Runyan’s race appeared more competitive earlier in the year, but national Democrats are not spending money in his district.

Even before Sandy hit the East Coast, national Democrats and Republicans were eyeing a number of competitive House races in New York and New Jersey closely. Many of the districts considered tossups a few days before the storm survived with relatively little damage.

Though Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, doesn’t have a competitive re-election race, he’s now doing double-duty, helping his Long Island-anchored district recover while guiding Democrats across the country in their races. On Thursday, Israel surveyed his hard-hit district with his constituents.

One New Jersey Democratic operative said that while some local politicians are concerned that weather-related polling location problems could affect their races, he does not anticipate the storm affecting any of the federal races on the ballot.

In any event, election supervisors throughout the Northeast are confident that the elections will proceed as scheduled Tuesday. Local officials are easing voting restrictions to help ensure as many people as possible are able to vote.

“I’d like to have the polling places powered up for next Tuesday,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Wednesday. “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.”

Gov. Dan Malloy, Christie’s Democratic counterpart in Connecticut, had a similar response at an appearance Thursday with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and members of the state’s congressional delegation.

“We are going to have an election,” Malloy said. “We will take whatever steps are necessary. We are in communication with the secretary of state’s office on a regular basis; we are getting information about whether, which, if any voting places won’t be open. We’re waiving rules if we need to consolidate, but we will coordinate that with jurisdictions.”

Con Edison, which provides power to New York City and Westchester County, N.Y., plans to restore most of the power system by the weekend after the elections, leaving it likely that polling places will need to have backup systems in place.

“In areas served by overhead electrical distribution equipment, crews have had to contend with more than 100,000 downed wires, as well as blocked roads and flooding,” the company said.

In New York City, Sandy delayed the distribution of some absentee ballots, which will be sent by overnight mail. State officials in Albany extended the deadline for absentee ballot applications by mail to Friday.

A spokesman for the state’s Board of Elections said polling places could operate without power for the optical scan voting machines. In that case, ballots would be put into a secure box and scanned into the system at another location. The spokesman said local election officials are still assessing the structural integrity and accessibility of many polling places. Any move to relocate sites could be made at the county level.

In some parts of New York, election returns may not be available until during the day on Wednesday.

William Biamonte, the Democratic commissioner of elections in Nassau County on Long Island said there’s no chance some parts of the region will have power back by Tuesday. He said the commission would work to “get as much normalcy as possible” by having as many voters as possible go to their normal polling sites, either on generator power or without power.

In precincts without generators, voters would fill out optical scan ballots on paper which would then be transported to another location with electricity to be run through the optical scan machines, significantly delaying the tabulation process.

One of the communities that may have polls open without power is Long Beach, which will be in the redrawn 4th Congressional district that is likely to be represented by Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy.

On Thursday evening, the Nassau County police department was working to reach all the polling places that have not been accessed since Sandy tore through the area to assess the situation. Biamonte said coordination with state officials has worked well so far.

“I have no complaints with Albany as of yet,” he said.

The size and scope of the historic storm could be seen as far away as the presidential battleground of Ohio, where almost a quarter of a million customers lost power in the northeastern part of the state, but Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) does not foresee trouble there.

“We’ve not had any instances of disruption in Postal Service delivery as it relates to our ballots in Ohio,” Husted said on CNBC. “Early voting is going well, people are turning out early — which means that that lessens the likelihood that there could be lines at the polls on Election Day.”

Joshua Miller and Abby Livingston contributed to this report.

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