The new coronavirus pandemic posed challenges to conducting elections nationwide, but coupling the outbreak with a historic hurricane season forced officials in Louisiana to move to Plan D.
After making adjustments for the new coronavirus outbreak, Louisiana officials faced another crisis: Hurricane Laura. A storm that hit as a deadly Category 4, it was followed weeks later by Hurricane Delta, a crushing blow to an already long recovery and on Wednesday, the fifth storm of the season, Hurricane Zeta, made landfall, a Category 2 hurricane.
“Bottom line is: We’ve had two serious hurricanes and the COVID emergency, so I’d say we’re right up there in history for the most challenging election in the United States,” Lynn Jones, Calcasieu Parish clerk of court, told Newsweek.
In August, Laura damaged about 95 percent of all structures in Calcasieu Parish, according to Jones, and killing nearly 30 people in the state. Months later, people remain displaced from their homes, unable to fully re-enter them and for some who could return, they’re relying on generators for power because it’s not safe to hook the electricity up, Jones said.
Five weeks after Laura hit, as Louisiana residents were still living in hotels because their homes had been damaged or destroyed the area was hit by Hurricane Delta, a Category 2, causing officials to once again re-evaluate their voting plans. With a total of five storms making landfall, including Tropical Storms Cristobal and Marco and Hurricane Zeta, the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season broke Louisiana’s state record.
Calcasieu Parish was spared from Zeta’s wrath and with forecasts predicting a sunny day for Tuesday, they’re working to reset early voting precincts for Election Day. Even with nice weather, officials have had to make contingency plans in the event of a power outage. Hurricanes Laura and Delta knocked out power to Calcasieu Parish and although it’s back up and running, it’s not always fully functional.
“The problem is they’ve had to use some Band-Aids to [get power back up and running], and they’re going back to reinforce the infrastructure so it is spotty sometimes,” Jones said. “At our big precincts we have backup generators that will be on standby.… A lot of planning went into play because early on we just didn’t know what we’d be facing.”
Smaller precincts may not have generators, but a power outage isn’t expected to prevent people from voting, Jones said. Machines are built with a battery backup that can last for 12 or 13 hours, so voting can continue even if the only light is coming from flashlights and cellphones.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, officials sent poll workers from varying parts of the state to help areas with local elections, but in a presidential race, every parish needs its workers. Jones added that there was a six-month gap between Katrina and the election. This year, officials had six weeks to prepare.
Despite the difficulties Louisiana residents are already facing, Jones said they came out to vote “very strongly” during the in-person early-voting period, which ended on Tuesday. More than 817,000 early votes were cast in person, according to the U.S. Elections Project, and in Calcasieu Parish, voter turnout on a daily basis was double and even triple what they normally see.
Hurricane Laura forced officials to move about 70 percent of their precincts due to damage or concern that they wouldn’t be viable for Election Day. The decision to condense individual locations into mega precincts was made early after Laura hit and two locations are home to 30 different precincts.
Had the move to make mega voting centers been made in almost any other year, it would be a much more simple fix. But, the “COVID situation changes everything,” Jones said, and the “easy” move was made more complicated because of the pandemic. The risk of spreading the new coronavirus means people can’t enter through any door they want and go to their assigned precinct, so officials need to control the egress and ingress of voters.
“I made a major media push almost daily asking voters to early vote if they could because it would take the pressure off our mega centers,” Jones said. “When you have [10,000 to] 15,000 people coming to one location in one day it is challenging.”
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