Election officials, advocates scramble to carry on in Florence’s aftermath

Election officials, advocates scramble to carry on in Florence’s aftermath

Image: Adobe Stock

It’s still not clear exactly how much damage Hurricane Florence left in her wake, but “the show must go on” for election officials and organizations dedicated to getting out the vote in the November midterm elections.

“The impact of Hurricane Florence has made it even more pressing for the voices of AAPIs [Asian American and Pacific Islanders] and other communities of color to be heard in this election,” said Chavi Koneru, Executive Director at North Carolina Asian Americans Together. “Voting is the only way for our communities to elect representatives who will advocate for our interests, particularly in hard times such as these.”

Koneru is one of many voting organization directors still assessing the aftermath of Florence, a category 1 hurricane that made landfall on the coast late last week and then wreaked havoc for days in eastern North Carolina as the wettest tropical cyclone on record.

Most get-out-the-vote efforts are already planned, but some will need adjusting, especially in areas hit hardest by the storm — New Hanover, Craven, Cumberland and Robeson counties.

North Carolina’s midterm elections are scheduled for Nov. 6; all absentee voting ballots are supposed to be mailed out by Saturday and early voting begins in less than a month. Voters have until Oct. 12 to update their voter registration information.

Those dates are cutting it close, considering some of those counties listed above still haven’t recovered fully from the damage from Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement spokesman Pat Gannon said he expects they will meet the upcoming absentee ballot deadline, and they are currently putting packages together to send voter registration forms and absentee ballot request forms to hurricane shelters.

Gannon didn’t have an update yet by Wednesday morning about which polling sites and early voting locations sustained damage from Florence, but said some of the board’s “data” staff were working on overlaying those areas with flood maps to provide some ideas as to where there may be problems.

In the meantime, voting organizations are trying to strike a balance between helping recovering communities and connecting with them about the importance of voting in the upcoming election.

“When hurricanes or natural disasters occur, the communities that are going to suffer the most are immigrant and low-income,” said William Saenz, a spokesman for El Pueblo, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of the state’s Latinx population.

He said that those communities have fewer means to protect themselves in a disaster and may not be able to evacuate before or recover quickly afterwards.

“When they are focused on self-preservation, it becomes more difficult to really look into the candidates and the issues that really matter to them,” Saenz explained.

The organization has a number of get-out-the-vote plans, including a voter registration event during this weekend’s La Fiesta del Pueblo, a couple of candidate forums and phone-banking from mid-October until Election Day.

Saenz said El Pueblo will re-double those efforts in the wake of Florence and adjust as necessary as the organization receives more information.

“It’s very important to come out during these times and make your voice heard so that there can be positive impacts in these communities,” he said.

Saenz added that the reasons people are in situations where they couldn’t evacuate or adequately prepare for the storm “really come down to policies perpetuating inequity and lack of access to basic resources.”

Though 2018 is considered a “blue moon” election in North Carolina, in that there aren’t high-profile races like a gubernatorial or presidential race that typically drive voter turnout, every congressional and state legislative seat is on the ballot.

“Congress and the N.C. state legislature have a direct say in how emergency resources are allocated, and we need to make sure our elected officials are aware of the hardships facing AAPIs so they can help direct resources to those who need them most,” said Koneru.

Like El Pueblo, NC Asian Americans Together has several get-out-the-vote efforts planned, including a full week of voter registration drives starting this Saturday, a week of drives on college campuses and neighborhood canvassing with a partner organization, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

“We are also phone-banking, door-to-door canvassing and holding parties at the polling sites to encourage turnout by the AAPI community,” she said. “Many AAPIs were impacted by the hurricane, and to make sure they get the support they need, it’s essential for all of us to get registered and to vote in the upcoming election.”

Common Cause of North Carolina Executive Director Bob Phillips agreed and said his organization is driving home the importance of getting to the polls this year, even after Florence.

“Right now it’s still sort of assessing and waiting to see what the impact will be,” he said. “But we are already thinking about what we can do to try to connect with people.”

Cumberland County is one area in particular that Common Cause is looking at to help with recovery while still forging ahead with get-out-the-vote efforts. The group has already organized a lot there, Phillips said.

Cumberland is also an area experiencing major flooding and the waters of the Cape Fear River are still reported to be rising. That could be bad news considering roughly 63 percent of the registered voters there turned out for the 2016 election to cast their ballots early.

Phillips said it will create more challenges than ones that already exist in a blue moon election, but it doesn’t mean voting groups won’t find a way. There’s simply too much at stake this year with six constitutional amendments and all policy decision makers on the ballot, he noted.

“It’s important for us to get that message out,” he said. “As a 501C3 organization, we aren’t permitted to tell people who to vote for, but we can take a position on the amendments and we are telling everyone to vote ‘no’ on all of them.”

Common Cause is one of nine nonpartisan government watchdog groups that, weather permitting, will go on a statewide tour to help educate voters about the constitutional amendments. The group also includes the ACLU of North Carolina, Democracy North Carolina, North Carolina NAACP, NC Voters for Clean Elections, Progress NC, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the North Carolina Justice Center (which is the parent organization of Policy Watch).

The tour was planned after a recent Elon University poll revealed North Carolinians know little about the proposed amendments, according to a Democracy NC news release.

Phillips said the number one reason people don’t vote is because they have a lack of information. That will especially be the case this year in the wake of a natural disaster in which a number of people could be left without access to the polls or widespread information about this year’s issues and candidates.

The tour – a 90-minute town hall-style event – will reach nearly a dozen major cities and rural hubs across the state before Election Day, with almost all scheduled currently to take place before early voting begins.

Some confirmed stops on the tour include areas that were impacted by Florence: Clayton, Fayetteville, Salisbury and Winston-Salem.

“In the wake of Hurricane Florence and the flood waters, which have overtaken hog waste cesspools and coal ash waste pits, voters should remember that our state legislature has allowed Duke Energy to charge rate payers for coal ash cleanup,” said Gerrick Brenner, Executive Director of Progress NC.

“State lawmakers have passed a law to enable Smithfield Foods to continue to spray hog waste on its neighbors, and lawmakers have buried their head in the sand by passing a law to deny climate science. These amendments would allow the legislature to appoint judges who side with corporate polluters. These amendments are a blank check for lawmakers and a bad deal for hard-working North Carolina families who want clean air and clean water.”

Tomas Lopez, executive director of Democracy NC, said the tour seeks to meet voters where they are – to help them navigate how their votes will affect their access to working elections, impartial courts, the ballot itself and much more.

Alexandra Sirota, Director of the NC Budget and Tax Center at the N.C. Justice Center, pointed out that the legislature has already started to shift the tax load to working families by raising sales taxes and fees and keeping in place income tax cuts that benefit the wealthy and big companies.

“Amendments on the ballot this fall will not only make that tax shift permanent, cutting off a critical tool to meet priorities like educational assistance or disaster relief, but leave taxpayers on the hook for controversial and costly proposals that would delay justice and deny voting access,” she said.

The “Protect OUR Constitution” tour will kick off at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Midwood International and Cultural Center in the International House Auditorium in Mecklenburg County.