Flooding that ravaged south Louisiana and damaged homes across the Baton Rouge and Lafayette regions has put a crimp in fall election planning, making it more difficult for voter outreach and tracking when tens of thousands are displaced.
Contingency plans are in the works for where to cast ballots in the nearly 60 precincts that are damaged and unusable for the Nov. 8 election. But the problems for candidates, advocacy groups, pollsters and strategists are more logistically complex.
How do you find the people you want to poll? Where do you send campaign mailers? Do you knock on doors in flood-ravaged neighborhoods? Will people occupied with the bureaucracy and the financial uncertainty of rebuilding care about an election at all?
Secretary of State Tom Schedler, Louisiana’s chief elections officer, expects the disaster’s widespread damage could depress voter turnout in an election that will help decide the nation’s next president, an open U.S. Senate seat, six U.S. House seats and a slew of local races.
“People, let’s face it, they’re trying to get to work, take kids to school. They’re trying to get their lives back in order. I would hope this would be a top priority, but let’s be real. We know this could be disruptive,” Schedler said.
One thing Schedler isn’t worried about, though, is whether people will have access to the ballot and a location to cast it.
“Miraculously, we did not lose one voting machine,” Schedler said, crediting employees who made sure the machines were protected, in some instances even as their own homes were flooding.
About 11 percent of precincts in East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes are damaged and likely won’t be available to use on Election Day, according to Schedler’s office. The number in devastated Livingston Parish is higher, close to 20 percent.
Schedler said he’s confident parish elections officials have strong backup options that will give people access to the polls with minor disruption. In Livingston Parish, he said, that likely will involve creating a mega-precinct site where people whose usual ballot-casting locations are damaged can go to one central location.
To give people information about voting site changes, the Secretary of State’s Office intends to send notifications by mail, take out an advertisement in the local newspaper, update its online information and put up signs in Livingston Parish.
Schedler’s urging people to early vote and, if necessary, to request a mail ballot from their local registrar of voters’ office that can be sent to any location a displaced person is staying.
“We’re trying to make it as painless as possible,” he said.
Louisiana’s dealt with displaced voters before — and in more extensive ways — after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When New Orleans’ city elections were held eight months after the storm, displaced voters cast ballots by fax and mail and at satellite polling places in Lake Charles, Shreveport, Baton Rouge and other cities. Evacuees scattered to other states boarded buses and traveled to Louisiana to vote early.
In the aftermath of the mid-August flooding, elections officials aren’t the only ones who have to devise contingency plans, however. Candidates and groups advocating for or against them also have to draft new voter outreach and grassroots strategies for the most heavily-damaged areas.
“When you’ve got 50,000-plus households where people aren’t there, it dramatically effects mailings by the campaign, calls to get people to go vote, getting the vote out, doing public opinion polls,” said Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat. “That’s a huge amount of people taken out of the mix.”
Pinsonat’s firm, Southern Media and Opinion Research, delayed statewide polling plans for three weeks because of the flooding. The firm, Pinsonat said, calls at least 30 percent cell phones for its polls, so that can help locate people displaced from their homes.
He said he and his partner are comfortable they’ll get accurate statewide polling data, but Pinsonat said someone trying to target Livingston Parish in a campaign will have difficulty.
“That’s a heck of a lot of houses where there’s nobody there,” he said.