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How Natural Disasters Create Voting Crises

Major storms routinely cause voter turnout to dramatically decrease, but the federal government has no uniform plan to address the growing problem.

A sign directs voters to a polling station in Fort Myers, Florida. In Lee County, where Fort Myers is located, 85 of the county’s 97 polling sites that were open a couple of months ago are now closed. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Voting has often been inconvenient for residents of Florida’s Dunbar community.

For decades, they fought to get an early-voting site in their Gulf Coast neighborhood. It finally came to fruition ahead of the 2020 election, but now, just two years later, that polling site has shut down.

The story is similar for many in this storm-ravaged part of the state. In a predominantly Black area that includes Dunbar, there were six polling sites for 113,000 residents. But this Election Day, there will be just two. The rest fell victim to the damage caused last month by Hurricane Ian’s near-Category 5 winds and deadly floods.

Dunbar is in Lee County, the region hardest hit by Ian. Of the county’s 97 polling sites that were open a couple of months ago, 85 are now closed for the pivotal midterm election on Nov. 8. Officials in the county, home to 790,000 residents, decided to drastically limit in-person voting options because “almost all” sites sustained damage from the record-breaking hurricane. 

But the voting struggles aren’t evenly distributed across Lee County. Prior to the hurricane, the ZIP codes with the highest proportion of white residents had more than 3 times more polling sites per capita than those with the highest proportion of Black residents. Now, in the county’s diminished form, both areas will have just two polling sites each, but the whiter — and wealthier — areas serve fewer people, just 85,000 residents compared to 113,000 in the Black areas.

To combat the loss of voting sites, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order that extends early voting in three Florida counties, including Lee. The administration also has urged residents unable to vote in person to mail in their ballots. But in Lee County, the mail-in ballots were sent just one week after the storm. With many residents displaced — some having left the state — retrieving the mail-in ballots is an unlikely task. 

As the state struggles to assist displaced voters, the stakes will be high come Election Day. Dunbar is in Florida’s 19th Congressional District, where Rep. Byron Donalds, one of three Black Republicans in Washington, is running for a second term. In addition, U.S. Rep. Val Demings is running to become the first Black person to represent Florida in the U.S. Senate, facing off against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. DeSantis is battling Democrat Charlie Crist to retain his seat as governor, having previously won the office by just 40,000 votes after a recount. 

Gerri Ware has spent five decades helping people register to vote in her long-disenfranchised neighborhood, which is located in Fort Myers. The 80-year-old said she is “really concerned” about the potential implications of a decimated electoral turnout, particularly if people show up at closed polling locations without enough time to change course and travel to an open one.

Ware said she’s brainstorming ways to make people aware of their changed polling sites and transport them to correct locations. 

“If people don’t get [out] early to vote, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like on Election Day,” she said.  

Protecting the ballot box

When Hurricane Michael hit Florida in October 2018, then-Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order that expanded opportunities to vote. Still, turnout declined nearly 10%  because residents were unwilling or unable to travel longer distances, according to a University of Chicago study

“That’s a significant drop,” one of the study’s authors wrote in The Washington Post earlier this month. “In a year when the U.S. Senate race in Florida was decided by 10,033 votes, some 13,800 voters didn’t cast ballots because of the hurricane.”
A similar effect occurred after Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast in October 2012. While voting turnout marginally declined across the entire country between 2008 and 2012, the decline was 3.5 times higher in counties under disaster declarations following the hurricane, according to a study.

Read More: In Fort Myers, Black Residents Fear Hurricane Aid Will Bypass Their Neighborhoods

Numerous other natural disasters have affected turnout in the last decade: hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020; Hurricane Ida in 2021; and wildfires in the western U.S. in 2016, 2018, and 2020. Some states and counties have acted to minimize the impacts on elections, with Florida extending early voting this year and Louisiana expanding mail-in voting in 2020 due to COVID-19 and hurricane damage. Researchers also have suggested establishing emergency and mobile polling places to alleviate some of the impact of disasters.

But while weather events are becoming increasingly volatile, including more unpredictable hurricane seasons and irregular instances of major winter storms, the United States has no national contingency plan for disasters that affect voting. In 2019, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, formed by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, began mapping out a national plan, but the coronavirus pandemic sidetracked the group’s work. 

‘Hurricane-caused voter suppression’

The absence of a national plan to maintain voting access amid climate change most severely affects the country’s historically disenfranchised communities — Black and Latino residents and low-income communities — which are also those most likely to face the worst outcomes from natural disasters.

“With so many people hurting and worried about being in their homes and insurance costs, nobody is worried or thinking about voting,” explained Tasha Guidry, a lawyer and community organizer based in the majority-Black, southern Louisiana city of Lake Charles. “You could say it is like hurricane-caused voter suppression.”

Guidry uniquely understands this form of “voter suppression.” In 2020, she spent weeks ensuring her neighbors who were displaced by hurricanes Laura and Delta were registered to vote and had access to either mail-in voting or in-person options. 

“They were already disenfranchised and down,” she told Southerly Magazine. The hurricane made it significantly worse.

Following the two storms, Black Louisianans’ voting power has decreased by 9%, while white voter turnout remained unaltered, according to a Capital B News analysis. Black and low-income communities often have been slow to receive repairs and spent the most time displaced from their home communities, making voting a difficult task. In the four major elections in Louisiana since the hurricanes, 162,000 fewer Black people have voted per election on average.

Guidry says it takes a “certain kind of determination” to vote when everything in your life is crumbling, and it doesn’t help that many people don’t see the value in their vote. 

“These are long-term problems,” she said. “People understand how elected officials can make natural disasters worse; they’re rightfully disappointed in the political establishment. So why would they prioritize voting over trying to put a roof over their heads?” 

Gregory Ford, pastor at First Assembly Cornerstone Church in Fort Myers, said local pastors, community leaders, and organizers are working to remind folks that they can simultaneously work on regrowing their storm-splintered community while also getting out to vote.

While residents who lost their homes, cars, and possessions in Hurricane Ian may not see this election as particularly important, affected communities should still work toward refocusing their attention toward preventing the next disaster. Electing climate and environmental justice leaders might help alleviate the fallout from future storms, some community leaders say.

“The hurricane was a major distraction for southwest Florida,” Ford said, but residents should try “to keep moving.”