Harvey and Irma Come to Town: electionlineWeekly on Election Officials’ Response

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Hurricane season has arrived with a ferocity not seen in years, as the Houston area recovers from massive flooding from Hurricane Harvey and Florida and the Southeast brace for Hurricane Irma. Mindy Moretti reached out to election officials in those storms’ path and shares what she learned in the latest electionlineWeekly:

Mother Nature does not discriminate. She does not care if you are a red state or a blue state. She really does not care if you have an election next week, or if that building her winds are about to topple is one of your polling places.

Currently counties in Texas are recovering from Hurricane Harvey while preparing for a November election, and cities in every state in Hurricane Irma’s path have elections next week.

There are no off-years for elections or Mother Nature.

We reached out to about 20 of the most-impacted counties in Texas to find out how their elections offices fared during the storm – and fortunately most of the news was good, although some counties are still trying to assess the damage.

Rachael Garcia, election administrator in Refugio County, said that her office had extensive water damage and that it will be weeks if not longer before the office will be open. In addition to the office, she and her family have also been displaced from their home.

Despite the damage to the elections office, Gracia said that while there was flooding at the county elections warehouse, all the equipment is safe and secure.

Other counties that we spoke with including BeeCalhounChambers, and Matagorda said their elections offices were not impacted by the storm and torrential rains.

Heather Hawthrone in Chambers County said that having been through Hurricane Ike, the elections office is prepared to deal with displaced voters and they will begin by reaching out by mail per precinct and then go from there.

In Wharton County, Elections Administrator Cindy Richter said that while the office and warehouse were spared any damage from Hurricane Harvey, two polling places were damaged.

“We will just have to wait and see if they will be ready for November,” Richter said. “We are checking around for available locations.”

Pamela Hill, elections administrator for San Patricio County, said that three of the county voting locations have damage to the buildings but her greatest concern is reaching out to displaced voters.

“We are hoping we can send them mail ballots,” Hill said. “We will be posting on our website and Facebook page in hopes of reaching those displaced.”

John Oldham, election administrator in Fort Bend County, said one of the saving graces for many Texas counties affect by Harvey is that they already operate on a vote center system. Many of the county’s vote centers are in schools and with those not scheduled to re-open until next week, he said it might be mid-month before his office could assess whether or not they need to find alternatives for November.

He said his office will use its customary methods for contacting voters about polling locations including required notices, the county website and social media such as Facebook and Next Door.

Because Fort Bend was lucky weathering Harvey, Oldham said that he would be reaching out to other impacted counties in the state to see what help his office may be able to provide.

Elections officials throughout the state are closely monitoring the storm and making sure all their emergency management plans are in place.

Lee County Supervisor of Elections Tommy Doyle has suspended early voting for municipal elections in Cape Coral and Fort Myers and is awaiting permission from Gov. Rick Scott (R) to postpone Tuesday’s primary in the municipalities.

Vicki Davis, Martin County supervisor of elections, has been attending briefings twice a day all week at the Emergency Management Complex and responded to emailed questions while county workers were boarding up the elections office windows. The supervisor of elections offices will be closed today and Friday.

Davis said during every hurricane season her office does the following:

  • Store enough election equipment, electronic pollbooks (EvIDS) and supplies to set up seven (7) vote centers throughout the county, if needed; and, equipment has been pre-tested for the upcoming November election;
    We have a virtual server which stores our voter registration database and the server is backed up in three different locations;
  • We have an election work station and tabulation server at the Public Safety Complex for back up;
  • Currently we have burned two sets of media for our city elections and have one set stored with the backup equipment and one set at the home of the Chief Deputy; and
  • We have placed our two 650 high speed tabulators in the vault for security; the voting equipment has been secured in the warehouse and we have a backup diesel generator to power the warehouse, computer server room and vault a/c units.

Davis said ballot for the upcoming election are already in production and post-hurricane they will assess polling locations for any damages.

South Carolina
In South Carolina, where Gov. Henry McMaster has declared a state of emergency ahead of a possible impact from Hurricane Irma, new Richland County Elections Director Rokey Suleman said his office isn’t taking any chances and is keeping a close eye on the storm.

“We are keeping an eye on the weather forecasts but have begun to prep our warehouse for a significant weather event,” Ruleman said. “The county is having an emergency management meeting on Friday to discuss various contingencies. We have ordered sandbags and expect them to be placed around the warehouse by the weekend. The equipment is stored off of the ground and we will be covering the machines with tarps in case there is minor wind damage to the roof. If the building suffers major or catastrophic wind damage, we will adjust to the situation as best as possible.” 

Orangeburg County Director of Voter Registration and Elections Aurora Smalls told The T & D that Tuesday’s scheduled election in the City of Orangeburg will go on as scheduled, no matter what Irma may do.

“We are looking at emergency plans now for the election,” she told the paper. She said the election commission’s plans include finding alternative sites for precincts that are in low-lying areas that could potentially flood. Smalls said an assessment of the city’s voting places are under review.

North Carolina
Further north in North Carolina, officials there are too keeping a close eye on forecasts for Irma.

The City of Charlotte, which had to move its 1989 primary because of Hurricane Hugo, has a primary scheduled for Tuesday the 12th.

“We are monitoring weather conditions closely,” Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the state elections board told the Charlotte Observer.

According to the article, State Elections Director Kim Strach has the authority to postpone the election if necessary, but the paper said she will not make that call until forecasters have a better sense of the path of the storm.

Primaries are also scheduled in Cleveland and Cherokee counties on Tuesday.

A little advice
We also reached out to officials in Louisiana and New Jersey to get some advice from them about what to do when Mother Nature attempt to wreak havoc on your very carefully planned elections.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina forced the postponement of the New Orleans mayoral election and forced the secretary of state’s office and officials in Orleans Parish to scramble to hold an election in April of 2006. In 2016, major portions of the state were impacted by catastrophic flooding.

Angie Rogers was director of elections for the state in 2006 and last year.

“The biggest thing is identifying and opening up vote centers so displaced residents can vote,” Rogers said.

She said setting up an 800 number for people to call was also critical in both 2006 and 2016. Rogers noted that while social media played a much larger factor in 2016 than it did in 2006, the 800 was and still is critical because not everyone may have access to the Internet.

“You can’t forget about social media,” Rogers said. “You just can’t rely on it.”

Rogers said she is available to give advice to any affected county.

One week before the 2012 presidential election Superstorm Sandy crashed into New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Despite the proximity to the election and the sheer devastation suffered in parts of each state, the election was held as scheduled on November 6.

“Every day things were changing,” said Robert Giles, director of elections for New Jersey. “We were working with power companies that were putting the grid back together to make sure they had a list of polling places.”

Giles noted that just because the power grid was back on did not mean that the power was back on in a polling place because there were still transformer issues.

The state brought in generators to voting sites and mobile voting buses to emergency shelters. The state also ended up treating all voters like UOCAVA voters.

To get some idea of what New Jersey did to make a successful 2012 election, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey created “Storming the Vote.”

Obviously, the communities in both Harvey’s and Irma’s paths will have other, more serious issues to face and challenges to overcome – but it’s good to know that the elections officials are doing what they can to make sure the right to vote survives the storm as well. Thanks to everyone who contributed to the article – and, as always, to Mindy for sharing it with the elections community.

Please be careful out there, everyone – and stay tuned …

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