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State preps for Election Day in Sandy's shadow

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- West Virginia officials worried Thursday about lingering power outages from superstorm Sandy interfering with Election Day as the death toll climbed to six, making the state one of the worst hit by a ferocious mix of wind, snow and rain.

The storm also deterred in-person early voting, at least briefly. Heavy, wet snow and blizzard conditions contributed to a death toll that was higher in West Virginia than in any of more than a dozen states lashed by Sandy's outer bands. Only New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, struck by the storm's core, reported more deaths.

Power outages and other damage have affected early voting in many states and raised questions about next week. In West Virginia, officials say around 5,600 residents cast early ballots in person Tuesday, when six counties closed their polling places and two others limited their voting locations. More than 14,000 had voted the day before, while around 10,200 did so Wednesday.

A handful of Barbour County voters endured the bad weather and lack of power and heat at the Philippi courthouse to cast early ballots Tuesday and Wednesday, Clerk Macel Auvil said. The voting machines ran on backup batteries Tuesday, when five people voted, but the clerks switched to paper ballots Wednesday when those ran out. Those votes will be entered on machines on Election Day, Auvil said.

With early voting continuing through Saturday, more than 97,000 West Virginians had cast ballots that way by Thursday, according to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. County officials have received another 10,331 completed absentee ballots.

As West Virginia's elections chief, Tennant said she discussed advance planning with county clerks and commissioners in case any of the state's 1,866 precincts must be relocated or combined.

"Sandy isn't finished with us... Some of these precincts aren't going to have power,'' Tennant said Wednesday. "Counties know their areas and know their precincts well. We're just giving them suggestions and recommendations.''

Sandy dumped heavy snow on West Virginia's mountains, snapping trees, pulling down power lines and collapsing homes.

Tennant noted that electrical utilities have put county courthouses and schools -- common locations for voting precincts -- high on their list as they work to restore power. About 148,000 customers statewide remained without power mid-Thursday, down from 190,000 a day earlier. Storm-related outages had peaked at around 271,000 customers.

Tennant also warned voters not to believe any phone calls announcing closed or relocated precincts. That's been a ploy used to suppress votes, she said. Instead, counties will post notices at precincts and also inform the media.

Early voting appeared to have resumed in all 55 counties Thursday, according to an initial review by Tennant's office. All but two, Braxton and Preston, offered it Wednesday. One of those that suspended early voting Tuesday, Jefferson County, will extend its hours Thursday and Friday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., Clerk Jennifer Maghan said. 


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