WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA — Campaign posters occupy nearly every inch of exposed grass next to the parking lot of the Northeast Library in Wilmington. The library is one of five early voting locations in North Carolina’s New Hanover County, and there’s a steady trickle of voters coming in and out over their lunch break.
Early voting began on October 17 and after the first weekend, data shows voter turnout is up across the state compared to the 2014 and 2016 elections.
Among the 28 counties receiving federal assistance for Hurricane Florence recovery, New Hanover has thus far seen the biggest increase in early voting, with more than double the number of ballots cast compared to the 2014 midterm elections. But this isn’t the case for other counties still struggling to recover from the hurricane.
“Voting is not a premier issue right now with them,” Courtney Patterson, a local organizer with the North Carolina Hurricane Relief Effort and Community Rapid Response Network, told ThinkProgress. “Survival is… everything.”
The four counties where voter turnout dropped most dramatically during the first weekend of early voting were all impacted by Hurricane Florence, nonpartisan voting group Democracy North Carolina’s analysis of the official state polling figures found.
Hyde, Pamlico, and Jones counties along the northeast coast of the state saw 43, 29, and 27 percent fewer ballots cast than in 2014, respectively. Further inland in Scotland County, early voting was down 25 percent compared to the last midterm election. Not only was Scotland hit by Florence but it was also impacted by Hurricane Michael just a few weeks later.
A spokesperson for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, however, told ThinkProgress that comparing this year’s initial turnout to past elections is not “apples to apples.” In 2016, turnout was impacted by the presidential campaign, while 2014 had a 10-day early voting period compared to this year’s 18-day period.
More broadly, Democracy NC’s analysis shows that of the 19 counties experiencing lower voter turnout in the initial days of early voting, 10 were impacted by Florence.
“If your life has been uprooted and you’ve been displaced, probably the last thing on your mind is voting,” Democratic congressional candidate Dan McCready told ThinkProgress. McCready is running in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district, which is home to Scotland County.
This midterm election cycle has seen two devastating hurricanes pass over the Southeast very late in the season. Unusually warm waters persisting into mid-October — largely thanks to climate change — means stronger storms are more likely to disrupt people’s ability to vote. This is due to logistical challenges and also the fact that accessing basic needs like shelter and food become the priority for many hurricane victims.
In Georgia, for example, which was hit by Hurricane Michael earlier this month, Black Voters Matter’s bus drove through rural counties recovering from the storm to deliver disaster relief such as water. The voter registration deadline in Georgia has been extended in impacted areas, but voting groups worry that people without electricity or internet access won’t get this information.
Rules regarding early voting, mail-in ballots, and registration have also been eased in Florida counties impacted by Michael. Some affected areas, however, haven’t started early voting yet; polls in the coastal Franklin County, for example, are set to open on October 27.
Ahead of the midterm elections, North Carolina officials worked to make accommodations for residents impacted by Florence. The voter registration period was extended by three days, and state elections officials adopted new rules to help those living in areas hardest hit by the storm.
Changes included in the emergency order will allow eastern counties to accept absentee ballots sent in the mail a week longer than normal (until November 15, rather than November 8). And in an effort to help individuals displaced by the storm, people will be allowed to turn in their absentee ballots in person at any early voting site or county election board in the state before 5 p.m. on Election Day.
While it’s difficult to predict how voter turnout might change during the remainder of the early voting period and again on November 6, everyone who spoke with ThinkProgress in North Carolina agreed there are significant obstacles that may limit hurricane victims’ ability to vote.
“People are more concerned with ‘Where am I going to live? Where am I going to lay my head down? How am I going to get food?'” Patterson told ThinkProgress.
Many hurricane relief and voting rights groups are working to help individuals with voter registration as well as organizing phone banks to call people and see whether they’ve been displaced. And in an effort to inform voters in hurricane-hit counties, the state board of elections launched a $400,000 marketing campaign highlighting the various voting options.
“It’s difficult to imagine that in all of our efforts, we are going to be able to reach many of these people,” Patterson said. “So, that being the case, I definitely think… the storm itself will have an adverse effect on people actually getting out to vote.”
Wealthier people may be able to make arrangements to go vote, he said. But for people with fewer resources who are now in a situation where everything they owned “got soaked in water, they don’t have a car now, they don’t have a house now — those people are going to be less likely [to vote],” Patterson said.
Well before the hurricane hit, North Carolina already had a dismal track record on voting rights. The state is notorious for its gerrymandering, which was recently ruled unconstitutional. At the end of August, a panel of North Carolina judges found that the state’s gerrymandered maps were designed specifically to “ensure Republican candidates would prevail in the vast majority of the State’s congressional districts.”
And in 2013, North Carolina passed one of the worst voter suppression laws in the country. But despite the Supreme Court striking the measure down last year — finding it targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision” — the state adopted a new voter ID bill in June that would effectively impose the same restrictions.
A ProPublica analysis of the new legislation also found that changes to the state’s early voting rules will result in a 20 percent reduction in available polling places. Since local counties typically foot the bill to cover early voting, introducing new standards makes the process more expensive, Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy NC, explained to ThinkProgress.
“I think there are larger counties that have more money and can afford to accommodate this,” Lopez said of the stricter early voting rules regarding hours and locations for stations. “And then there’s smaller places that can’t. And so you end up seeing, as a result of this, fewer places where early voting is available.”
Thanks to the twin blows of discriminatory voting practices and Hurricane Florence, Patterson said certain communities — largely low-income and minority-heavy areas — will suffer more than any others when it comes to exercising their right to vote.
“Because of where many poor people and African Americans live, they are going to be disproportionately affected by the storm,” Patterson said. Add to this the gerrymandering and other restrictive voting laws, and “it’s the people who are most affected by Florence that could do the least about the situation that they’re in now,” he said. “I think it is hurting them worse than anybody else.”
With these challenges in mind, many local candidates are increasingly worried about voter turnout.
During a Monday night meet-and-greet hosted by the Sierra Club, candidates repeatedly voiced concern — both for the hurricane victims themselves and how a possible decrease in voter turnout may impact their campaigns. “Nobody knows how to run an election in a literal disaster area,” said self-professed rookie candidate Leslie Cohen, who’s running as a Democrat in state house district 20.
Speaking to ThinkProgress, Cohen said many voters she’s talked to are busy dealing with complicated insurance forms and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid process, so “a lot of people are having a harder time thinking politically right now.”
But some voters have told her that compared to dealing with FEMA and insurance companies, and finding “qualified, honest repair people” to fix their homes, voting is easy. “I know how to show up to the polls; this is something I can do that feels good,” Cohen said of some people’s reactions.
With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, voting groups and campaigns alike are closely watching polling data. And while it’s anyone’s guess how voter turnout will continue to shift closer to November 6, everyone expects the storm to play a role.
“It’s definitely having an impact,” Jeannie Lennon, a Wilmington resident, told ThinkProgress. “I don’t know what the end result will be, I do hope that in spite of people’s personal despair that they will get out and vote.”
“I don’t think we can change the weather,” she said of the need to elect officials who make better city planning decisions, “so we have to change the way we cope with the weather.”