Pennsylvania Polls: Sandy Aftermath, Undelivered Absentee Ballots Pose a Threat to Obama

Hurricane Sandy has ranked among the top three in power outages, leaving more than one million people in Pennsylvania without power. Beating its path into Pennsylvania through the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia, it struck the southeast corner of the state with winds over 75 miles an hour, and a larger swath of southeastern Pennsylvania with winds of 59 miles an hour or more. Unfortunately for President Obama, this includes many of the heavily populated districts of eastern Pennsylvania that supported him in 2008. Many of the 490,000 customers of PECO, which serves Philadelphia and its suburbs, could remain without power until Election Day, in temperatures that could dip into the 30s.

The Electoral College is a much-maligned institution, but it has its redeeming qualities. Because the U.S. uses the electoral system, the decreased voter turnout in New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy should not affect the outcome of the election, even though it may shift the popular vote toward Romney. According to RealClearPolitics, New York remains solidly for Obama, and New Jersey likely so, and they will have 29 and 14 electoral votes no matter how many voters actually make it to a working polling place.

However, the same is not true within a state. Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes are pledged to whoever wins the popular vote over the state as a whole, so any factor that reduces turnout in heavily Democratic districts could shift the balance in favor of Romney. The Republican candidate has shifted his strategy, from an apparent retreat on October 15 to increasing campaign activities and a $2.1 million television ad campaign in the state soon afterward. Pennsylvania has a small but consistent lean toward Democratic candidates, rooted in the "politically Northeastern" eastern part of the state.

Throughout the region, election officials have been racing to catch up after imposed delays. In some states, the number of polling places could be reduced because power for voting machines is unavailable in some locations. In Pennsylvania, the deadline for voter registration was extended until Thursday. Philadelphia city officials believe that all voting applications will be processed on time, and that voting machine deliveries will be made on schedule.

But other irregularities could affect Philadelphia voting, as a "glitch" in a postal sorting machine caused requests for absentee ballots to be returned from a City Hall address as "undeliverable mail."  Although Republican Pennsylvania Governor Corbett extended the deadline for in-person requests by several days, the mailed requests continue to be held to the same Friday receipt deadline, which could be problematic given hurricane-related disruptions. 

Additionally, Pennsylvania continues to run ads saying that voters will be "strongly encouraged" to show photo ID when voting, though the requirement was struck down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. For voters facing the practical difficulties of a prolonged power outage, and perhaps closed, moved, or overcrowded polling places, these confusing issues could become serious obstacles. If low Philadelphia turnout throws the state to Romney, the same issues seem poised to become the stuff of acrimonious national debate over a "stolen election".

Nonetheless, Pennsylvania Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registration by a factor of 4 to 3. The Democrats, perhaps anticipating victory, usually have a lower voter turnout, 75% to Republicans' 85%. One source even claimed that predicted poor weather on Election Day could hurt Democratic turnout.

If Pennsylvania's Democratic voters take notice of the situation in Philadelphia and are energized to vote, they will be a force more potent than hurricane winds.