Democracy 101: The Challenge Of Voting After Hurricane Florence
This is part of our election-year civics series, Democracy 101. Click here to find more of our stories about important issues in North Carolina politics.
As North Carolina begins its long recovery from Hurricane Florence, another problem lies ahead: what will voters do when it comes to casting ballots this fall, especially in places devastated by flooding?
In this special edition of our weekly series, Democracy 101, WFDD’s Sean Bueter speaks with Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer to find out more about how disasters affect voters.
On how Hurricane Matthew in 2016 shifted voter turnout:
Actually, in looking at the data, the counties that were declared disaster counties when Hurricane Matthew hit had fewer people early voting and more people voting on Election Day than the counties that weren't impacted by Matthew. So the turnout was very small, in terms of the differences between Matthew-impacted counties and the rest of the state. But what it looked like was happening is that voters were waiting until Election Day instead of typically going to vote early.
Natural disasters tend to disproportionately impact the poor, a bloc which already has barriers to voting. Could the effects of Florence put up even more?
Potentially. I think that there certainly are what we would call "participation costs" that go along with voting. You need to know who's running, you need to know what district you're in, you need to know where your polling place is. So those kind of ordinary participation costs for some people may be a little bit much. Add on top of that displacement from your home, uncertainty about your job, [and] I think those participation costs certainly go up.
What we have seen though was, there was actually a study done of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the mayoral contest. And what they actually found was: people were just as likely to show up to vote [from heavily impacted areas] as those folks who weren't hit. So there is some question about whether people will be impacted by this, or whether they will be able to recover in the next couple of weeks to then go and make a decision about voting.
On what someone can do if they've been evacuated from their home, or are otherwise worried about their ability to vote due to the storm:
I certainly think they have a number of options. First and foremost, they could submit a mail-in ballot if they have access to a post office or can be assured that mail would be forwarded to them. That is certainly one thing that they could do. They could also do early voting in-person. And then finally also on Election Day they could certainly cast a ballot.
So there are different options and opportunities for them, and I think boards [of elections] will be working with their voters to make sure that people do have access and availability to casting a ballot this fall.
(Ed.: This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.)