Tanzina Vega: 2020 has been a record year for hurricanes, wildfires and other climate related weather disasters. That's made the voting process more of a challenge for certain voters around the country. This recent string of climate disasters from wildfires in states like California, Oregon and Colorado, to Hurricane Zeta along the Gulf Coast have complicated an already difficult election year. As evacuees and others affected by these disasters navigate how to cast their votes. For more on this, I spoke to Jan Childs, a writer for Weather.com, and Adam Rayes, the rural and small communities reporter at KUNC in Colorado. According to Adam, it's unclear just how much the wildfires have already affected the early voting process at least in Colorado.
Adam Rayes: We don't know exactly how many of the people that are evacuated from the fire are voters and even from among those, it's difficult to tell how many have already cast their ballots, as mail-in voting has been going on for several weeks, as has in-person voting and drop box voting. It's really difficult to get a handle on that. Overall, Colorado, we're seeing really good return numbers. The counties that are mostly affected by the fires are seeing record breaking return numbers as of the state overall.
Tanzina: What have the options been for voters, especially people who have been evacuated from their communities, even up to today, Election Day.
Adam: Polling centers have been open since October 19th in many areas, and there are more opening as Election Day approaches. Voters can go to any of those anywhere in their county, if they evacuated somewhere else in the same county, or if they go to one in somewhere else in the state, they can use what's called a statewide ballot, which would essentially just take off all the local races and allow them to vote on the national and statewide races and questions.
If they have their mail-in ballot and they took it with them when they evacuated, as we've heard, several people did do was one of the first things people packed, I've been told in some cases, they can take those and put them into any drop box in the state. That'll go, even if it's a different county from their own, the clerk in that county will deliver all ballots from their drop boxes outside of the county to the home county's election offices.
There's also emergency options. They don't really advertise a lot of these options, because specific situations require specific solutions, and they don't want voters to get confused, or misjudge whether or not they qualify for a certain option, but one of the areas that was hit by the fire hardest a small mountain community, I've been telling its voters that they can actually use an online ballot, though I was just told, as of the morning before election day that only five voters had taken advantage of that.
Tanzina: It's interesting that you say that they were people who were evacuating and thinking about their ballots and packing those. That shows a serious interest and commitment to voting. Jan, let's bring you in here. Wildfires are not all that we've experienced this year. Hurricanes like Hurricane Zeta, which is the latest that we're experiencing, how have they complicated the early voting process in the Gulf region?
Jan Childs: Louisiana, in particular, has been hit especially hard this year. They've had five storms make landfall in the state. A lot of that is similar to some of the things that Adam was saying in terms of the options for voting and things like that. It's also true that we don't really know yet how that might affected turnout among people who were evacuated, or displaced from their homes.
Their early voting ended before Hurricane Zeta, so they had already completed it, but they were really concerned about how people would vote in areas like Lake Charles. That entire parish was under a mandatory evacuation for two hurricanes. There's a couple thousand people still living in hotels outside of the parish, and people dealing with repairs to their homes and things like that. There was a lot of question about how that might go.
Well, they had twice the number of voters turnout this year for early voting than they did in 2016. You can't say for sure how many more might have turned out if there hadn't been these storms and hurricanes happening, but it didn't appear to have a dramatic impact that we can see right now, but it's like Adam said, we really won't know until it's all said and done. The ongoing issues they have there now, though are power outages that are still an issue in the areas that were hit by Zeta, Southeast Louisiana right now. They're having to bring in generators and things like that to make sure that the polling places can be all up and running and everything goes smoothly today.
Tanzina: Is the expectation that they will be able to maintain the polls open at least till the end of Election Day?
Jan: That is the expectation. That's what they're saying. As of yesterday, they were bringing in generators to the places that didn't already have them. The power company there in Louisiana also prioritized getting power back to those polling locations. Many of those already had their power back anyway. In Lake Charles though, they did have to consolidate most of their polling places into just a couple of larger locations. People there have to go to a different place to vote than they normally would have been. There's always concern about that, because anytime you put any inconvenience to voting, it tends to be a barrier for some people.
Tanzina: It's not just hurricanes that we're concerned about here, it's also an ice storm that came through in October in the state of Oklahoma. That's left thousands of people without power. What's happening there? How has that community tried to gather itself for election day.
Jan: A lot of those power outages are in and around Oklahoma City so you've got a large number of people there. They're doing the same thing there that they're doing in Louisiana, bringing in generators that they have set up to have their polling places open. Their early voting didn't appear to have any disruptions in terms of people not being able to vote. It's a little bit of a different situation there because people aren't evacuated.
Tanzina: All right. I'll go back to Colorado for just a second. Adam, I'm still thinking about the folks, who you said that you talked to, who packed their ballots as they were evacuating. That's a time when you think about family photos and things like that. What are some of the emotional challenges, Adam, that voters who are dealing with natural disasters are facing?
Adam: The primary emotions are just a lot of stress right now. I spoke to two evacuees about this issue primarily. Both of them have actually luckily, recently been able to get back into their homes, although one of them is under pre-evacuation order and may be forced to leave again. A lot of it was just a lot of stress and I had one tell me, that between trying to deal with the insurance and trying to work from a hotel room and worrying about their home and the other million things that they had to deal with, that they were wanting to figure out how to vote, but it was not the top thing on their mind. That they had much more important things to deal with and much more stressful things to process.
Tanzina: Has this set a precedent this year in particular, because of everything that's happening with the coronavirus, or have natural disasters disrupted past elections in the US? I'm trying to think about whether they've had a similar effect, because this year is in many ways, unique in the amount of people who have turned out to the polls to do early voting, despite everything that they're experiencing.
Jan: We all know this year has been unprecedented in so many ways. I think there's still a lot of things that we've already mentioned that we won't know until, everything's said and done. Bad weather has interrupted elections before actually. The best example is probably Hurricane Sandy in 2012, because that was also presidential election year and that storm hit a week before Election Day. They had to make a lot of last minute changes there and it was really a scramble, it was very chaotic. There was lots of controversy that election has been studied by researchers still ongoing. Really after that a lot of states put emergency plans into place.
Tanzina: Adam, we've been talking about the effect that natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes and ice storms are having on how people vote, but I'm wondering whether these disasters have also changed the way or who they might vote for.
Adam: There's actually very little recent and reliable polling on the wildfires impacts on voting patterns for Colorado voters and voters in areas specifically affected by fires more generally. There is some national polling. There's a variety of groups, The Economist, Kaiser Family Foundation, New York Times, and Pew, but a lot of it was done just as if not well, before the two largest fires in Colorado started to see that explosive growth, though California and Oregon had already seen some of their biggest fire growth at that point. The little polling that we do have on this that asks about fire specifically tends to be polling people specifically on its relationship to climate change.
We know that the longer and harsher fire seasons are definitely a function of that. It's being used as a stand in, so in many of the recent polls on election issues, belief in climate change and the value placed on that belief tends to be pretty sharply divided along party and candidate lines, mirroring how the two party's presidential candidates talk about it on the campaign trail. In general, polls do say the majority of voters are concerned about climate change to at least some if not a significant degree, but between coronavirus and the economic downturn, for a lot of these poll voters, it wasn't the top issue going into this election.
Tanzina: Jan, you mentioned that there are different emergency plans that have been put into place. What are some examples of those thinking about the state of Louisiana, for example, or Georgia?
Jan: In Louisiana what they're doing right now is getting the generators in place. They also have backup batteries on their voting machines, which can last up to eight hours.
Tanzina: Adam, given that the polls are open for a couple more hours today, what advice would you give people who are heading out to the polls who have dealt with these types of natural disasters?
Adam: Any piece of advice I've gotten from local elections officials across the northern half of Colorado is, consistently call your county clerk, call your county clerk, call your country clerk. If you are not able to access a ballot and you want to not go vote in person or for some reason voting in person will be difficult or you don't want to just use a statewide ballot, call your county clerk. They'll be able to tell you your state's laws and their local resources will be able to support you in whatever situation you're dealing with. That applies to any variety of emergency situations from injury to coronavirus to the fires.
Tanzina: Jan, anything on your end? Any advice for folks as they head out for these final opportunities to cast a ballot in this election?
Jan: Pay attention to your local officials and if you're in one of these areas affected by the power outages, check and make sure that you're going to the right place to vote.
Tanzina: Jan Childs is a writer for Weather.com, and Adam Reyes is the rural and small communities reporter at KUNC. Jan, Adam, thanks so much for joining us.
Jan: Thanks, Tanzina.
Adam: My pleasure.
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