Climate Change & Voting Rights

Hurricane Ida just barrelled through the Gulf region, 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina made its devastating landfall, and is still churning its way across the country. In the wake of Ida and the anniversary of Katrina, many will talk about climate change and environmental justice.

There is an important element that often gets left out of these discussions: voting rights. Voting rights and natural disasters are inextricably linked in ways that might not be immediately obvious, but that we think are essential to understand. 

Voting is linked to structural inequities in exposure to natural disasters 

Social structures that create unequal participation in and access to democratic processes also end up creating unequal protection from natural disasters. When people who live in the direct line of the encroaching dangers of climate change are the most vulnerable to voter suppression, they are less able to vote for people who will take their climate needs seriously and provide the resources they need to prepare and protect themselves. 

Voting is tied to a community’s preparedness to survive extreme events like Katrina and Ida, which have become more frequent due to climate change. 

In February, the Hill reported on how disenfranchisement and other barriers to voting keep the very people most worried about the real life impacts of climate change from voting. In March, the New Yorker made the argument that expanding voting rights is essential for the fight against climate change. 

Research shows disenfranchisement is a factor in unequal vulnerability to climate change. Existing social inequities get reinforced and exacerbated by increased exposure to extreme weather, natural disaster, and other environmental dangers, especially because those dangers tend to fall disproportionately on people who are already facing inequities in other areas such as access to housing, education, and employment. 

Climate change impacts voting rights and voting rights impact climate change.

As we watch the recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, we should pay attention to the broad impact of disenfranchisement on political power and the political capital necessary to help protect the affected communities from further future harm. 

BUT we should also pay attention to the potential specific impact on the individual voting ability of those who suffered through the consequences of the storm. 

Loss & Relocation of Polling Sites

One thing to look out for is changes in polling locations. This article from the Center for Public Integrity and Stateline (which is part of Pew) describes changes in polling place locations as a result of damage from storms in Louisiana in 2016. Before the floods, election officials in East Baton Rouge were planning to move 5 polling places (one of which served a majority Black population). After the floods, the locations of an additional 19 East Baton Rouge polling places were changed, 15 of them serving a majority Black population. One key stat they cite from their own analyses: 26% of Black voters (compared to 15% of White voters) in East Baton Rouge Parish experienced a change in their polling location between 2012 and 2016. 

The loss and relocation of voting locations was also an issue after Katrina. This article describes how a voting location that mostly serves two public housing developments in Ward 9 was relocated to a different location that was basically inaccessible to the residents. It took 15 years for community activists to get the mayor and court clerk to agree to move it back to the church in which it was located pre-Katrina. 

Between 2004 and 2016, the number of polling locations in New Orleans dropped from 252 in November 2004 to 120 by November 2016 and the average distance to a polling location for voters in central New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward increased 50% during this time period. Many of these polling locations were closed or relocated as a result of storm damage, and some have been restored, but many have not for various reasons including population changes. However, some of them were closed for other reasons. 

For example, Jefferson Parish closed 23 voting locations in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Instead of modifying them to be disabled-accessible or moving them to locations that are accessible, they just closed them down. 

Displacement

Another barrier to voting that comes after any natural disaster is displacement. This article describes the kinds of difficulties that people encounter when trying to vote after natural disasters, and displacement is a major one. For example, as of October 26, 2020, about 6,000 residents of Lake Charles had yet to return to their homes following storms in August and October. Displaced residents were told they should vote absentee in the 2020 elections, but many of them had not received any mail in months. They could try to go back to their home to get their absentee or they could try to vote in person, but changes in polling locations complicated that. 

Loss of Identification

Loss of ID is another issue post natural disaster that could keep people from the polls. Following those 2020 storms in Louisiana, many people reported to local nonprofits that they didn’t have the ID required to vote (it was lost or damaged in the storm) and although they were allowed to sign an affidavit if they didn’t have one, the League of Women Voters had previously testified that they heard reports that some poll workers weren’t providing this option to people.

All of these barriers keep people away from the polls, which is reflected in voter turnout. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a research group at Brown released several reports on the impacts of the storm. One described turnout in the 2006 New Orleans Mayoral race, which occurred the year following Hurricane Katrina. 

Total voter turnout in this election was ~110,000 and ~114,000 in the runoff, which was over 10% lower than turnout in the 2002 mayoral election. They also point out that turnout in neighborhoods with little to no damage (predominantly White neighborhoods including the French Quarter and the Garden District) was actually higher in 2006 than in 2002. In contrast, in New Orleans East, in which more residents are Black and lower income, turnout for the runoff was 23% lower and in the Lower Ninth Ward, it was 40% lower. 

It’s worth noting post-Katrina voting (initially) occurred under the Voting Rights Act before Shelby v. Holder, when many jurisdictions, including the entire state of Louisiana, were still required to obtain preclearance prior to making changes to voting provisions. It is entirely possible that the VRA with the preclearance requirement curbed some erosion of voting rights in the immediate aftermath of the storm. 

However, at the very least, in the absence of the preclearance provision and with the rise of voter suppression bills all over the country, the voting rights landscape after Hurricane Ida is much worse than the one post-Katrina, which may make voting under difficult circumstances – in the wake of a natural disaster – even more difficult.

All of the examples above are from Louisiana in the past 20 years. Now think about how many people might be affected by other kinds of natural disasters and climate change events in other parts of the country, many of which are located in states that have introduced or passed legislation making it harder to vote even under ideal conditions. 

Displacement, loss of ID along with other belongings, changing polling places — these are all things we might expect to happen after hurricanes that hit in other regions, after earthquakes, and after wildfires like those that have been ravaging the American West on and off for months. 

These events are only going to get more frequent and the number of people whose voting rights are affected will get larger.

This means climate change will become more and more implicated in barriers to voting and voting will become ever more important in the fight against climate change.