The President of the United States does not have the authority to postpone an election. Under Section 4 of Article I and Section 1 of Article II of the United States Constitution, it is Congress that is charged with that duty:
“The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Place of Chusing Senators" and "The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.”
In the event of any catastrophe, if Washington D.C. is impacted then it could be highly problematic to convene Congress and make the necessary change to the date.
Hurricane Sandy moved onshore into New Jersey and then New York on October 29, 2012. Even though the event occurred more than a week before Election Day, U.S. voters were severely impacted. I, like many others on Long Island and elsewhere, still had no heat, hot water or electricity. My local polling station at Fairfield Elementary School received electricity just before Election Day but other polling stations were not so lucky.
Many voters in New Jersey voted in makeshift voting tents. State Senator Nia Gill, of New Jersey, introduced early voting legislation, which allowed people to vote up to 15 days prior to a primary or general election. In New York, Governor Cuomo announced that New Yorkers, displaced by Sandy, could vote anywhere in New York State with a provisional paper ballot. According to some news sources, this process did not run smoothly as some polling stations ran out of these provisional ballots and polling staff were not adequately trained for the change. In a close election, these events could have prompted lawsuits resulting from claims of disenfranchisement.
States need to be better prepared for disasters by introducing legislation for emergency situations. There needs to be a related plan where perhaps mobile voting stations can be set up and voters can be provided adequate notification about the change. Additionally, provisions should be made for alternate voting day(s) should the need arise. Early voting appears to have been effective in New Jersey and late or delayed voting may also need to be considered. Governor Christie’s decision to allow electronic voting by fax or email was a good solution, although with power outages access to the Internet in public places should also be considered. Another idea might be to set up Interactive Voice Response Units (IVRU) to enable citizens to vote via telephone.
On a federal level, Congress may want to consider a contingency plan for postponing Election Day in the event that they cannot meet in person on Capitol Hill. This scenario is entirely possible given the potential for a crippling storm or worse – a terrorist attack. Regardless, Hurricane Sandy has been a call to the Legislature and municipalities to develop disaster recovery and contingency plans so that U.S. citizens will always have the privilege of voting on Election Day.
Hayes is a professor at Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems in New York. As the Computer Information Systems Program Chair at Pace, Hayes has cultivated partnerships with the New York Police Department, United Nations, and many other respected agencies. Hayes also manages the computer forensics laboratory at Pace, conducting research with computer science and information systems students.