[Photo by Michael Appleton for The New York Times]
A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that looked at the sad state of election contingency planning nationwide. At the end, I had this short observation:
It’s too late now to put policies in place to manage that process for 2012 – but here’s hoping that the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy prompts policymakers in Washington and state capitals across the nation to return to the issue of what would happen if a disaster – natural or man-made – results in disruption on Election Day. In other words, talk is cheap – at some point the people responsible for making decisions will have to actually do something about it and not just leave it to election administrators to figure out on the fly.
Yesterday, we finally got a glimmer of a response. According to the New York Times, Senate Rules Committee Chair Charles Schumer intends to introduce legislation to accelerate the contingency planning process:
“Voting is a fundamental American right, and all states should have a plan to ensure that even a serious man-made or natural disaster doesn’t interfere with that right,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, who plans to introduce legislation to require states to develop disaster contingency plans for elections for federal offices.
“Both the magnitude and timing of Sandy caught us by surprise and disrupted elections along the entire Northeast,” Mr. Schumer said. “It can’t be allowed to happen again.”
Mr. Schumer said that New York City and New York State have developed election contingency plans, but that a number of other states have not. His legislation would allow states to request federal money to pay for the development of their plans.
The proposal is the latest effort by elected officials and voting experts to respond to their experience from Hurricane Sandy. Mr. Schumer, a Democrat, is the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal elections.
After the storm, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey both allowed displaced voters to cast provisional ballots at any polling place, and, over all, turnout did not suffer to the extent many people had feared.
But the voting had its share of obstacles: In New Jersey, voters were allowed to submit ballots via email or fax, but county clerks, lacking in manpower and technology, struggled to transmit and receive the ballots. In New York, there were long lines and shortages of ballots at polling places. And in both states, voter confusion was widespread; in many cases, displaced residents also could not vote in local or congressional races.
The federal bill follows state action in several states and would encourage development of procedures to respond to natural and man-made disasters on or before Election Day.
Of course, simply introducing a bill isn’t enough; given the paralysis/sclerosis/[insert debilitating medical term here] currently in place on Capitol Hill, there is still much work to be done – and even if the bill passes, the fight will then shift to paying for the contingency plans, itself a tall order in the current Congress.
Still, Schumer’s bill is a long-overdue but promising step in the right direction. Hopefully on this issue, Congress can find a way out of its current situation and help the nation’s election offices ensure that voting continues even when life intervenes on or before Election Day.