By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — More than 250 of Pennsylvania‘s roughly 9,000 polling places were still without power Friday morning, creating a challenge for election officials as Election Day approaches.
Gov. Tom Corbett on Tuesday said he was ordering the Public Utility Commission to tell power companies that polling places should be given priority for restorations.
Power companies in eastern Pennsylvania, where most of the outages remain, say they expect power to be restored by Monday at the latest.
Superstorm Sandy that struck Pennsylvania and the rest of the Northeast earlier this week presented a political challenge to candidates and a practical challenge to the state officials responsible for conducting next week’s election.
But the timing of the storm was fortuitous in one sense — at least it arrived a full week before the election.
Had Sandy come ashore a week later, chaos could have reigned on Election Day, as the storm left wide swaths of the state without electricity.
Ron Ruman, spokesman for the Department of State, said counties, which run the elections, must have contingency plans that including moving polling places.
“As far as a statewide situation, it’s not something that we’ve ever encountered,” he said. “It’s something that we’ve looked at on a case-by-case basis and have dealt with the issues as they have arisen, as we’re doing now.”
Electronic voting machines are equipped with backup battery in the event of a power outage, but they generally last for only two hours. If a polling place is still without power Tuesday, generators could be used or the machines could be used in a rotation to make sure at least one is available all day.
But if a statewide disaster kept people from getting to the polls, it is unclear if the governor has the unilateral authority to postpone elections in the event of a natural disaster, because federal law controls election dates, said Ruman.
The state may have some authority to change state-level elections, like the attorney general and state legislative races, but only Congress can alter the date of the presidential election, said Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
“I think there would be a myriad of court challenges,” he said.
The Legislature should form a bipartisan committee to develop contingency plans in the event of a natural disaster occurring on or near future Election Days, said state Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Philadelphia, chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee.
But Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said creating a contingency plan or moving the election date with little notice would be “easier said than done.”
He said the state would have no choice but to postpone the election to avoid disenfranchising voters, if Sandy had come a week later.
“It’s not a question of convenience; it’s a matter of impossibility,” when it comes to voters trying to get to the polls in the height of a major storm, he said.
This is not the first time a major storm that has nearly wrecked havoc on elections in Pennsylvania.
Last year, a surprisingly early winter storm dumped up to 16 inches of snow in parts of the state and left 500,000 without power on Oct. 30, only eight days before voters went to the polls.
And the state is no stranger to violent nor’easters in the days surrounding elections, like the so-called “perfect storm” of 1991 that struck the coast on Halloween night.
Both years, only municipal elections took place.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow him on Twitter @PAIndependent for breaking news.