Washed out Democracy? What’s at stake.

By: and - October 18, 2016 2:27 pm
Photo: Lisa Sorg

washedout-50Floodwaters may be receding, but damage from Hurricane Matthew will linger for months to come, maybe longer. Residents in counties that saw the worst of the storm, many of whom remain in shelters, are picking up the pieces, and voting likely isn’t at the top of their to-do lists.

The hurricane’s obvious impact on early voting and potentially on Election Day will be felt when individuals try to get to the polls, whether it is finding the time to hit pause on their own recovery or finding a polling location that isn’t waterlogged.

Data: NC Dept. of Transportation, NC Board of Elections

The extent of the overall impact on the election likely won’t be felt until it’s too late.

“Communities like Princeville and Lumberton could have many voters who are unable to make it out early because they cannot access polling places or, because of cleanup or other concerns, may not find the time to vote,” said David McLennan, a visiting professor of political science at Meredith College. “Some communities might be affected through Election Day. Some communities, like Princeville, because they contain high numbers of minority voters, could affect the outcomes of races, even statewide races for governor or U.S. senate if these races are very close.”

[Tweet ““Communities like Princeville and Lumberton could have many voters who are unable to make it out early because they cannot access polling places or, because of cleanup or other concerns, may not find the time to vote,” said David McLennan, a visiting professor of political science at Meredith College. “]

Princeville is in Edgecombe County and Lumberton is in Robeson. Both are receiving federal assistance to deal with extreme flooding and were among the 36 counties granted extended voter registration as a result of a court order issued last Friday.

As of Saturday, there were 38,122 voters registered in Edgecombe County, of which the majority are African American (23,215). More than 27,000 of those voters are registered Democrats and a little over 6,000 are registered Republicans.

There are currently 75,574 registered voters in Robeson County, of which the largest group is American-Indian (26,678). More than 50,000 voters are registered Democrats and more than 9,000 are registered Republicans.

There are six early voting sites in Robeson County and five in Edgecombe but the numerous road closures near each of the counties polling places can exacerbate even a 10-minute drive.

Overall, there are 1,766,903 registered voters in the 36 flood-affected counties receiving federal aid, nearly 66 percent of all registered voters in North Carolina, which saw a 68 percent voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election, according to the State Board of Elections.

Board of Elections spokesman Patrick Gannon said the executive director, Kim Westbrook Strach, has been working with county elections boards since before Hurricane Matthew to make sure there are options for voters in flooded areas.

Matthew’s aftermath. Photo by ed17 is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

“They’ve been working really hard from the start,” he said, adding that a couple local counties’ boards of elections directors took voter registration forms to shelters where residents had evacuated. “From how it looks to us today … we believe that there are options for people to vote early across the state.”

Durham resident Carol Rist remembers all too well when her home in Dade County, Florida, was demolished by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Voting was postponed for the hardest hit areas in the primary presidential election at the time.

“We voted in tents,” she said. “Although I knew that my vote could not change the election results, since those voting did not have enough votes to change the outcome of the election, nonetheless, I was happy to be able to take part in a very important election.”

Rist, in response to seeing the effect Hurricane Matthew had on certain North Carolina areas, said it’s imperative officials continue to do everything in their power to make sure people can vote.

“And for those who don’t have the opportunity to register before the deadline, every effort should be made to get them to early voting,” she added.

Organizations like Common Cause North Carolina and Democracy North Carolina are also helping, both to get the word out and to get people to the polls.

Bob Phillips of Common Cause (L), Jen Jones of Democracy NC (R)
Bob Phillips of Common Cause (L), Jen Jones of Democracy NC (R)

“One can only imagine the incredible disruption in peoples’ lives (the storm) caused,” said Common Cause Executive Director Bob Phillips. “I do think it’s going to be a question mark as to what impact that will have (on voting). It’s kind of an unknown just how much they can take away from picking up the pieces of their lives and vote.”

Jen Jones, a spokeswoman for Democracy NC, said the organization has been trying to educate as many people as possible about how, when and where to vote depending on their situation in an effort to clear up the “inevitable confusion.”

She said that while many people in the eastern flood-ravaged counties are still focusing on basic needs – food, shelter, work – they also crave a sense of normalcy, which for many includes voting in the upcoming election as they had originally planned.

Residents in the following counties have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to register to vote on Election Day: Beaufort, Bertie, Bladen, Brunswick, Camden, Carteret, Chowan, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Currituck, Dare, Duplin, Edgecombe, Gates, Greene, Harnett, Hoke, Hyde, Johnston, Jones, Lenoir, Nash, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Pender, Perquimans, Pitt, Robeson, Sampson, Tyrrell, Washington, Wayne and Wilson.

[notification type=”notification_info” ]Anyone who misses the deadline can still participate in same-day voter registration and vote during the state’s 17-day early voting period, which begins Thursday. Not clear on the rules or want to know more about the candidates on the ballot? Visit ncvoterguide.org. Need a ride to the polls during early voting or want to volunteer as a driver or vote protector? Visit ncvoter.org.[/notification]

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Melissa Boughton

Melissa Boughton worked as the Courts and Law Reporter at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020.

Nelle Dunlap

Nelle Dunlap, New Media Director, is a digital artist with a background in education, community organizing, and design. At N.C. Policy Watch, Nelle keeps the website running smoothly and collaborates with reporters to create new visual content — including video, info-graphics, and interactive social media. [email protected] 919-861-1454