September 25, 2017
September has been a terrible month for natural disasters in this country: wildfires lit up the Pacific Northwest; hurricanes battered southern states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands; and flooding from these storms inundated entire communities. More than 13 million Americans have experienced direct impacts from these powerful events.
What we’ve learned from previous major natural disasters is that once the immediate crisis passes, communities will face a long road to recovery -- and that includes rebuilding a community’s election systems. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced more than a million people, and cut the immediate population of New Orleans by more than half. In addition to replacing destroyed voting infrastructure, including hundreds of polling places, state and local governments had to contend with how to communicate with so many displaced voters, and whether to open voting sites outside state borders. Voters who evacuated were left to grapple with questions about when, or if, they’d go home -- forcing decisions about where they should register and how they would vote.
With mayoral and municipal elections coming on the heels of the hurricane, this all took place right at the very moment Louisianans would most want to send a message to their elected officials about the future of their hometowns. These challenges weren’t academic: they were deeply relevant, and, ultimately, depressed voter turnout. In the Lower Ninth Ward -- one of the hardest hit New Orleans neighborhoods -- voter participation in the spring 2006 municipal elections declined 40%. And following Hurricane Sandy, which hit the eastern seaboard about a week before the 2012 elections, the effects on voter participation were similar: the drop in turnout in areas most affected by the hurricane was more than three times that of the rest of the country.
September 26 is National Voter Registration Day. This presents an important opportunity to reflect on whether we are, as a country, doing all we can to protect every voter’s rights -- including those whose communities face natural disasters. This is especially necessary as climate scientists tell us that these kinds of disasters will continue to become even more severe. And the communities most exposed to physical destruction -- of their homes and businesses, and the infrastructure that keeps towns humming -- often find themselves most vulnerable to the loss of the right to vote.
We can draw important lessons from the painful rebuilding after Katrina, Sandy, and other natural disasters. What are some of the steps state and local officials can take to make voter registration more accessible following a disaster? And how can we make our democratic systems more resilient before a disaster even strikes?
- Enacting online voter registration, which enables eligible voters to register, or update an existing registration, through a state website. This avoids having to receive and mail a paper form, or going to a local election office -- steps that can be burdensome for a displaced voter.
- Enacting automatic voter registration, which adds an eligible voter to the voter rolls when she interacts with a government agency -- a common interaction for a displaced voter.
- Facilitating communication between election officials in states or counties to which displaced voters have moved, so that voters are given consistent information concerning their ability to register and vote.
- Including clear and accurate registration and voting information in all social service materials provided to displaced voters.
- Training poll workers and other election officials about displaced voters’ unique needs, including their right to continue to be registered in their hometown, even if their future plans are uncertain.
- Targeting voter registration drives to communities displaced by the disaster.
- Extending the date by which citizens in the affected state must register, when a significant storm or other event hits close to the voter registration deadline.
From voter ID laws to the perpetuation by our nation’s leaders of baseless claims about widespread voter fraud, attacks on the right to vote seem unending. As good neighbors and engaged citizens, we should always make sure that every member of our community is able to access democracy. And as we celebrate National Voter Registration Day in the wake of such terrible weather events, we should reach beyond our immediate borders to call for state and federal officials to adopt these common-sense recommendations, particularly in communities where natural disasters present still another threat to our democracy.