How Election Officials Cope with Natural Disasters

The world of elections tends to get less spotlight during the “off-years” for presidential elections; however, the elections space never really slows down. While the presidential race occurs every four years, the time in between includes midterms, congressional races, state legislature races, as well as countless municipal and county races. This results in state and local election administrators continuously devoting their energy to running efficient and successful elections.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature can further complicate election official’s jobs. Both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma’s devastating paths have already complicated upcoming elections in a few states. Electionline recently reached out to election officials in several of the most affected counties in Texas. For some counties, damage was minimal – positive news as they prepare for a November election. However, other counties, like Refugio County, reported damage to polling places that would require weeks out of the office, and many election officials are planning and executing policies now on how to best reach displaced voters.

Some states have statutes or emergency provisions affecting elections in in the event of a natural disaster. Both the 2012 and 2016 Presidential Elections were affected by natural disasters that disrupted voter’s accessibility to the polls and set schedules for election administration. In both elections, however, election officials grew increasingly experienced in natural disaster planning to ensure people’s right to vote remain possible post-storm.

During Superstorm Sandy, the most destructive hurricane of the 2012 hurricane season, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced an emergency policy change that allowed all New Jersey registered voters to vote electronically by either email or fax, very similar to systems that Military and Overseas voters already used under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act as well as the creation of “emergency polling places.” Road vehicles like vans were made available for “curbside voting” in an attempt to provide more voting accessibility for New Jersey voters. 

Whether an election emergency is natural or human-caused, jurisdiction-wide or statewide, advance planning by state and local elections officials goes a long way in minimizing barriers to successfully voting.