Hurricane Matthew's Voting-Rights Challenge

The fallout from the storm will further limit access to the ballot in communities where it’s already limited.

A street in Lumberton, North Carolina, covered by floodwaters caused by Hurricane Matthew (Mike Spencer / AP)

Hurricane Matthew brought utter devastation to Haiti and other islands in the Caribbean after it swept through the region early last week. In Haiti, the storm killed at least a thousand people; damaged infrastructure advancements the nation had made in its push to modernize; and delayed a presidential election originally scheduled for early October.

While the problems it’s caused on the eastern United States have been less dire, the storm has nevertheless had serious consequences in many communities. And, as in Haiti, its aftereffects may have repercussions on the country’s upcoming presidential election as well. Efforts to calculate the political costs of a disaster—which are already ongoing in the case of Matthew—often generate callous, clinical results that don’t capture the length and breadth of those effects; they may focus on how displacement might benefit one candidate or the other, but can’t capture the human stories behind those missed votes. The most difficult exercise in a catastrophe’s aftermath is accounting for the things and people lost: the resulting health crises, the activities made difficult, the memories erased, and the strain of rebuilding. Worrying about political consequences can seem crass when people’s day-to-day lives are in ruins. Sometimes, though, the things victims have to lose are political in nature, making a discussion about politics unavoidable—and even necessary.

As Hurricane Matthew skipped along the East Coast of the United States and flooded counties from Florida to Virginia, one question that displaced residents or those otherwise dealing with the storm’s fallout face is whether they’ll actually be able to cast a ballot for the November 8 elections as expected. In a region already engrossed in conversations at the intersection of voting rights, inequality, and justice, though, that question has roots that run deeper than just the practical barriers to voting that a storm can create.

On Monday, the entire town of Princeville, North Carolina, located in Edgecombe County just east of the I-95 corridor, was evacuated by state and local authorities in anticipation of a possible storm surge that could top the local levee on the Tar River and flood the area. The quick move to evacuate to higher ground across the river was based on experience: The town had been almost completely destroyed by a catastrophic 500-year flood after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. While Hurricane Matthew was not a very powerful storm by the time it hit North Carolina, and only struck a glancing blow, the lowland areas of the inner coastal plain flooded easily, and left some locales in nearby upriver areas under 10 or more feet of water. Many places in eastern North Carolina, like the town of Lumberton in the southeast, were hit with rainfall and storm surges that left hundreds stranded. Others dealt with fierce winds that downed trees and power lines. As of this writing, Lumberton is still mostly underwater, and many parts of the state expect flooding for a week or more.

It would take time in any community to recover from effects like these. But in some of the counties facing the worst damage in North Carolina—including Edgecombe, Cumberland, and Bladen counties—their history presents additional difficulties that can make resuming normal life a challenge. These areas have large populations of people of color and are home to large numbers of low-income residents. The town of Lumberton is known for its large population of Native American people and is mostly low income. The town of Princeville is also predominantly low income, and as the oldest incorporated black town in the country, its residents are virtually all black.

Towns and counties like these have always faced environmental risks from flooding and other environmental catastrophes because of centuries-old patterns of settlement and marginalization. As is true for Princeville, their precarious locations are often the result of historical decisions to cede lowlands and riskier areas to people of color, a story of de facto segregation that has played out in successions of land grants and redlining in communities throughout the country. The resulting racial and economic patterns of disaster risk are also intensified by the fact that the areas occupied by poor people of color are also the least equipped to launch effective disaster management and recovery efforts.

The same pattern of segregation that creates this uneven allocation of environmental risk along race and class lines also dictates other socioeconomic, health, and civil-rights disparities, including disenfranchisement. The areas at the highest risk for environmental disaster also tend to fit the profile of low-turnout voting precincts, an association that makes securing access to the ballot a pressing concern in disaster response. Although discrimination at the ballot box is officially illegal under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in many communities barriers to turnout are still structural, including sparse polling places, longer lines, fewer volunteers, and less overall investment in voter outreach and education. Environmental disasters can exacerbate these barriers for low-income black and Latino voters in towns like Princeville or Lumberton.

For all communities, regardless of their environmental vulnerability, disasters make voting harder by displacing people and crippling infrastructure. Disasters also just generally disrupt life in ways that might make voting less of a priority. The political implications of those ripple effects are considerable—there is evidence that Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in the Northeast just days before the 2012 election significantly reduced turnout. But these changes in voter behavior take on a new importance in vulnerable areas, as storms and other disasters amplify existing structural barriers to voting.

In majority-minority places affected by recent floods like Edgecombe County, North Carolina, and Jasper County, South Carolina, Hurricane Matthew could very well shut down the few polling places that exist; disrupt the electricity required to run them; damage fragile transportation networks and roads; and stymie voter-outreach efforts. Those challenges may not change the election’s outcome, but they do constitute a policy problem: People who have already long been denied civil rights will see those rights further abridged. And as it should generally be the responsibility of state and local governments to ensure the right to vote, it should also be their job to mitigate the effects of disaster on that right.

There are ways that states and communities can help mitigate the effects of Hurricane Matthew and future disasters like it on voting rights. Extending registration deadlines and early voting in places that allow it should permit more people whose lives are disrupted to participate in the political process. While Florida’s registration cutoff was on Tuesday—just a day after the worst effects of the storm subsided—a federal court defied the objections of Republican Governor Rick Scott by extending the state’s deadline one day to accommodate last-minute voters. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, several affected states in the Northeast extended early voting; added new polling places; and allowed displaced voters to cast provisional ballots outside of their designated home precincts on Election Day. New Jersey even allowed residents to register for online voting up until Election Day.

Best practices like those established in northeastern states after Sandy are not only valuable components of any disaster-preparedness plan, but are also part of the political duty of federal, state, and local governments to protect the civil rights of their most vulnerable constituents. As communities similar to Princeville and Lumberton have always been at a nexus of both environmental and voting-rights inequalities, the path to equality requires understanding both problems as necessary components of each other.