Hurricanes Laura and Delta Complicate Voting For Displaced Louisianans

Published in 14 October, 2020

At a Glance

  • Thousands of people remain displaced from their homes.

  • Evacuees can vote by absentee ballot or in person.

  • Displaced residents have little time to change addresses and obtain absentee ballots.

Thousands of Louisianans who fled or were displaced by back-to-back hurricanes Laura and Delta remain scattered in hotel rooms and other temporary housing as election day approaches. People who won’t be in their home parish on election day have two options: vote early in person or cast a ballot by mail, according to the Calcasieu Parish Clerk of Courts. The entire parish, with a population of more than 192,000 people including the city of Lake Charles, was under a mandatory evacuation order for both Laura in late August, and Delta last week. Calcasieu, along with Cameron Parish to the south, were the hardest-hit areas in the state. Early in-person voting starts Friday and runs through Oct. 27 throughout Louisiana, according to the state’s voter information website. (MORE: Delta and Laura Mean Some People Will Be Forced to Seek Disaster Aid Twice) More than 9,100 Louisiana residents were still in emergency shelters or other accommodations as of Sunday morning, Catherine Heitman, spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Family Services, told Reuters. That number is up 10 percent from numbers prior to Delta. Based on previous comments from Gov. John Bel Edwards, most of them were in hotels in and around New Orleans, about three hours from the areas hardest hit by Laura in August and Delta late last week.
That would likely make it hard for them to return for in-person voting. “We’ve received tons of calls” from people wanting to know how to vote, Jean Anne East, co-director of elections for the Calcasieu Parish Clerk of Court, told Tuesday. “I think they will take every opportunity they have to vote, be it a mail-in ballot or coming in person.” Displaced registered voters have until Oct. 30 to request an absentee ballot. They must be returned by Nov. 2. East said voters can request an absentee ballot be sent to any address, not just the one they have on file with her office. It should be noted, though, that the U.S. Postal Service recommends requesting an absentee ballot at least two weeks before election day, which would be Oct. 20, and mailing it back at least seven days prior to the return deadline, or Oct. 27. Advertisement Tyler Brey, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of State, told Tuesday his department didn’t have a breakdown of how many evacuees were registered voters. He said the state started running radio ads and social media campaigns after Hurricane Laura to make voters aware of their options. Louisiana previously delayed elections in some parishes after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Gustav and Ike in 2008, according to WDSU-TV. Brey said there were no plans to change voting rules because of this year’s storms. Michael Morley, an assistant professor of law at Florida State University who has written about disasters and voting, pointed out that 2005 and 2008 weren’t presidential election years, which makes it easier to change things up. “With the presidential election you start brushing up against deadlines that are set forth in federal law and the constitution itself,” Morley told in an interview Tuesday. He noted that modifications can be made, though, depending on when a storm hits and other factors. Voters in New Jersey, for example, were allowed to cast ballots in any precinct in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy hit just days before that year’s presidential election. The state also made other emergency accommodations such as extending the deadline for mail-in ballots to be received. It’s not just hurricanes that are complicating voting this year. In March, Louisiana became the first state in the nation to postpone its presidential primary election because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to The New York Times. Last month, a federal judge ordered the state to expand eligibility for mail-in voting to people affected by COVID-19, including those at risk of severe illness, caregivers and those who are under quarantine, The Associated Press reported. Brey said the state also added more early voting days and extended hours at the polls. The Secretary of State’s office said in a news release dated Sept. 25 that this year would see the highest number of absentee ballots ever recorded. Calcasieu Parish Clerk of Court Lynn Jones said that seeing how elected leaders react in a disaster is a good reminder to vote. “When we get into a situation like we just experienced in Laura and the leadership and the things that happened, really was based on how you voted,” Jones told KPLC. “And so, right now, more than ever, we see why it’s important to exercise your right to vote.”

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