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Lessons from the Past:
How Natural Disasters and Elections Collide

This year marks the second time that the National Weather Service has recorded so many named storms that we’ve had to move on to the Greek alphabet. With Zeta brewing in the last week of October, there’s been much speculation about the possibility of a hurricane or tropical storm colliding with the presidential election on November 3rd.

And the experts aren’t just worried about coastal flooding. Out in Colorado, the East Troublesome Fire burned through mid-October and forced the evacuation of Rocky Mountain National Park. This unwelcome extension of an already brutal fall fire season in the west coupled with the pandemic has motivated many residents in the Western states to vote early or by mail.

The inaccessibility of polling stations around the country is a known contributor to voter suppression, and this year’s culmination of public health crises and extreme weather have led to a huge increase in requests for mail-in ballots around the country.

There’s been a lot of talk about voter suppression on the state and national level by local governments, but people aren’t the only forces that keep votes from the polls. Let’s look into three examples of environmental voter suppression from the past to look for lessons that may apply to this year.

How Hurricane Juan Brought Inland Flooding to the Midatlantic

The 1985 Election Day Floods may no longer loom large in popular memory, but they were one of the most recent examples of voter suppression by weather. Hurricane Juan made groundfall in Louisiana in late October of that year, before moving inland to hover over the Midatlantic states, where it continued to pick up water from the Atlantic.

The result was nearly 20 inches of rainfall in some areas, coinciding with Election Day in Virginia on November 5, 1985. Several counties saw their lowest voter turnout records ever and few broke 20 percent.

This massive rainfall resulted in record-breaking coastal floods and inland flooding that prevented voters from going out to vote, but these floods are known for their long-term impacts on the electorate in the region.

As Florence Davey-Attle reported for CNN, “Political scientists found that while incumbent politicians can be punished at the polls following a natural disaster, voters are much more likely to turn against leaders if they are seen to have botched the response effort.“

Natural disasters influence how people feel about where they live and how their government responds to meet their needs when something goes wrong. While flash floods can keep voters away from the polls on Election Day, a bad flood season from even a year before a local or national election may impact voter registration and turnout – as Americans were reminded nearly three decades later in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

How 2005’s Hurricane Katrina Impacted the 2006 Presidential Election

Although Hurricane Katrina infamously made landfall in August of 2005, New Orleans and the region were still reeling from its impact when the presidential elections of November 2006 arrived.

As the CRS Report for Congress states, “More than 600,000 displaced Louisiana residents, nearly half of them from the city of New Orleans, were scattered across the country. In Mississippi, an estimated 66,000 persons [were] unable to return to their Gulf Coast communities.”

In Louisiana and other gulf states, lost voting equipment, decimated polling places, and an overall lack over pollworks impacted many jurisdictions. The challenge of locating displaced survivors of the flood who had not yet established a permanent address a year later was an even greater challenge.

The good news is that state and federal governments cooperated to establish an appropriate response to help get ballots in the hands of Louisiana voters. They established:

  • Extended early voting at an increased number of locations.
  • A multi-state approach, including the creation of polling locations in states with a large number of Katrina refugees, where candidates in Louisiana state elections also traveled during their campaigns.
  • Lower barriers for those requesting an absentee ballot be mailed to them at a different address.

While this did not eliminate barriers to voting or confusion around where to cast their ballots, this remains an historic example of what happens when natural disasters and elections collide.

Want to learn more about flood protection? Head to our Intro to Flood video series to get started.

A Late Push to Postpone Polling and Extend Deadlines during Super Storm Sandy

In more recent history, Super Storm Sandy’s time over the Atlantic Coast nearly brushed up against the presidential election on November 6, 2012. The storm departed the area on the second of that month, leaving millions of voters stranded in place, without electricity or a way to travel to polling stations.

According to FEMA, 16 states and the District of Columbia were impacted by Hurricane Sandy, and more than 250 polling locations in New York and New Jersey alone were moved within days of the election, impacting 250,000 voters. 

From this distance, it’s impressive to look back at CNN’s Election Day round-up of Sandy’s impact on voting in each state. In the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, local officials suspended early voting during the storm and extended it after the date had passed.

While it’s nearly impossible to get a clear picture of how many voters were kept away from the polls due extreme inland flooding and extensive power outages, most states impacted by Hurricane Sandy were able to act with agility to avoid a disastrous Election Day.

The best way to prepare for the unknown on this Election Day (and the next), make a voting plan and check your flood risk to make sure your plans can stand the test of a natural disaster.

If you’re not sure how to get ready your home for the next storm, get to know your flood risk today and find out more about how to prepare before the next storm hits

Expect to See More Natural Disasters Land in Election Seasons

This has been a record-breaking hurricane season, and as global climate change continues to warm the oceans, we can count on seeing more intersections between elections and natural disasters.

We now can say we’ve seen what happens when a flood strikes in the middle of a pandemic, but we can’t begin to guess at when that floodwater will begin to rise outside our own front doors. If you’re concerned about disaster preparedness ahead of this election, you can learn a lot from looking at how your state responds to increased local flooding (or if it’s relevant where you live, wildfires).

Mail-in ballots don’t just combat structural voter suppression, they also enable voters who live in high-risk flood areas to participate in the election with confidence. Whether your state is most at risk for floods, fires, or tropical storms this election season, it’s important for all voters to have a plan (and a backup plan) to ensure their ballot is cast.

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