Pennsylvania laboring to fix power at polling sites

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With less than a week to go until voters head to the polls, Pennsylvania officials say they're working with county governments to ensure that after-effects from Hurricane Sandy won't stop balloting from beginning Tuesday as planned.

The Department of State is assessing what election-related obstacles may have been created by this week's storm, with a report expected by today or Thursday.

Counties that shut down their offices as the storm approached have been authorized to extend their absentee-ballot application deadlines to as late as Thursday evening.

While Allegheny County was not included in that extension, a county judge ruled Tuesday that completed absentee ballots could be submitted past Friday's deadline. The county instead will count all ballots submitted by 8 p.m. on Election Night.

Gov. Tom Corbett said Tuesday he hadn't made a decision whether to issue a statewide extension for returning absentee ballots, noting that most areas of the country have access to postal service.

He also said his administration's review of county preparedness will ensure that polling sites are high on the utilities' repair lists.

"I think we can make sure, in talking to the chairman of the [state Public Utility Commission], that the electric companies can make sure those polling places have power," Mr. Corbett said.

Finding new polling sites if the planned locations have suffered damage is a county-by-county decision. Counties also manage their own voting machines, which may be delayed in getting to polling sites due to the storm.

In case of power loss, local election officials are encouraged to keep enough paper ballots on hand for 20 and 25 percent of their registered voters.

All electronic machines have backup batteries, which Department of State spokesman Ron Ruman said can last about six hours. He said a precinct could stagger use of the battery-powered machines, using fewer than they normally would.

However, an elections official in Lehigh County says their machines' batteries only last 21/2 hours, making it difficult to keep booths running all day.

As of Tuesday afternoon, state officials were anticipating only "scattered situations" in which storm-related voting issues may arise.

"It's really a matter of assessing the polling places once power is back up to see if buildings are damaged or if there are road closures," Mr. Ruman said. "The good thing is that this happened Monday and Tuesday, and not Thursday and Friday."

Compared to neighboring New Jersey and New York, Pennsylvania's storm impacts have been minimal. By Tuesday afternoon, 2.7 million New Jersey households lacked electricity, with the Associated Press reporting that full restoration could take seven days or more.

Gov. Chris Christie scoffed at reporters who asked whether New Jersey is prepared to go forward with balloting next week. "I don't give a [darn] about Election Day," he said, pointing to the coastal devastation and flooding. "It doesn't matter a lick to me. I've got much bigger fish to fry."

The state board of elections in New York -- where seawater swamped the massive city subway system Monday night -- is directing voters to check its website for information on whether polling locations have changed.

Early voting was suspended in six West Virginia counties Tuesday due to snow and flooding. But despite heavy rains in Maryland, early balloting there will resume today with extended hours.

In Allegheny County, Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph James granted a petition Tuesday sought by lawyers from county Executive Rich Fitzgerald's administration and the state Democratic party to extend the deadline for submitting absentee ballots until the close of polls Tuesday.

Attorneys Allan Opsitnick, representing the county elections board, and Cliff Levine, representing Democrats, argued that voters on the East Coast seeking to have their absentee ballots filed by Friday evening, as required by law, could be disenfranchised by mail and transportation hiccups related to the storm.

Among them are voters in colleges out of state: Mr. Levine told the judge his daughter Rebecca, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, isn't sure that her ballot has arrived at the county elections office and his son Eric, a senior at Yale, is still waiting for his to be delivered to campus in Connecticut.

Mr. Levine also argued that despite the state's Friday 5 p.m. deadline, in presidential years absentee ballots are always allowed until the 8 p.m. close of polls on election night.

The attorney for the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, Ronald Hicks, argued the three-member county elections board -- comprised of Mr. Fitzgerald and fellow Democrat John DeFazio and Republican council member Heather Heidelbaugh -- did not have authority to seek an extension under election law and noted Allegheny County was not heavily affected by the storm.

Judge James pushed Mr. Hicks on what authority Mr. Corbett himself had in the election code to expand ballot application deadlines for Philadelphia and other counties, and the attorney could not answer.

The GOP could appeal further election board moves in the matter and whether absentee votes in races other than president -- from the U.S. Senate race to state legislative battles -- will be counted next week. The judge ruled that any absentee ballots received after 5 p.m. Friday be sequestered, which would allow for those and other challenges.

"Absentee ballots are one of those types of voting mechanisms that can be fraught with fraud," Mr. Hicks said after the hearing. "When you extend the deadlines you're allowing people to disenfranchise other people who in fact vote in accordance with the law."

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Harrisburg Bureau chief Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254. Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Karen Langley contributed.


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