LAWRENCE MESSINA,Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia election officials were worried about lingering power outages from Superstorm Sandy as the death toll climbed to six, making the state one of the worst hit by the powerful tempest.
A ferocious mix of wind, snow and rain blamed for the West Virginia deaths also deterred in-person early voting, at least briefly, and officials were looking at the possibility that lack of power may keep some voting locations from opening for Tuesday's general election.
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 impacted early voting in many states and raised questions about Election Day next week. In West Virginia, officials say around 5,600 residents cast early ballots Tuesday, when six counties closed their polling places and two others limited their voting locations. More than 14,000 had voted the day before.
With early voting continuing through Saturday, more than 96,716 West Virginians had cast early or absentee ballots by Wednesday, according to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.
Tennant said she's discussed advance planning with county clerks and commissioners in case 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 190,000 customers statewide remained without power Wednesday evening, down from 271,000 a day earlier.
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 in-person voting remained available in all but three of West Virginia's 55 counties on 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 S. Maghan said.
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.
Associated Press Staff Writer Vicki Smith contributed to this report from Philippi.