State officials are working to determine how many polling places may have been affected by Hurricane Zeta. With hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in Southeast Louisiana without power, many fear that any last-minute closures will compound voter confusion ahead of election day.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said in a press release that his office is still assessing the damage to election infrastructure and will have more information “over the next 24-48 hours.”
“Power outages remain the most widespread challenge and we are working with Entergy and other utility companies to assess and restore power to our election infrastructure,” Ardoin said.
Tyler Brey, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, said the sheer number of voting polling locations has made it difficult to complete a comprehensive damage assessment.
“If it were early voting, there are so many fewer early voting sites that it wouldn’t take nearly as long, but because it is each polling place specifically, it's kind of a tedious thing,” Brey said.
Orleans and Jefferson parishes alone have more than 500 voting precincts. Many of those precincts share polling locations, but inspecting those sites remains a massive task for poll workers worn down by a longer-than-usual election season and utility workers worn down by a lengthy hurricane season.
“Once we have all the information, we will be in a better position to work with local elected officials and local governing authorities who are actually the ones to make the decisions to close, consolidate or relocate polling places,” Brey said.
Neither the Secretary of State nor local authorities have set a cutoff date for them to determine any polling location changes.
Gov. John Bel Edwards echoed Ardoin's concerns and said with the election just days away, time is running out.
“The hard part here is that you have to make the decision early enough so you can communicate the changes so that they are not deprived of the opportunity to cast that vote on Tuesday, on Election Day,” he said.
A 2018 report by the Louisiana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights identified the closure of polling places as one of the most significant barriers to voting in the state, particularly for low-income voters and people of color.
During a post-storm media briefing, Edwards said utility companies have been asked to prioritize power restoration at polling locations. But it’s unclear how those locations stack up against the hospitals, nursing homes and water treatment facilities that are normally at the top of utility workers’ to-do lists.
“That’s a big wrinkle we haven’t had to deal with in the past,” Edwards said.
Ardoin can assist local officials in making some adjustments on the fly, but state law dictates that any broad changes to the emergency election plan would have to be drafted by the secretary of state and approved by the governor and the legislature in what can be a contentious, highly-politicized process.
With Edwards, Ardoin and the Republican-controlled legislature unable to agree on the state’s COVID-19 emergency election plan, a federal judge ultimately decided what accommodations would be made this fall to protect voters from the coronavirus.
Edwards and Ardoin urged voters in affected parishes to closely monitor local election officials’ websites for updates.