In Louisiana and coastal Mississippi, Black, Indigenous and poor communities are still suffering following Hurricane Ida. Many in the region still lack electricity during one of the hottest times of the year. While some consider the situation in Louisiana to be the result of a natural disaster, it is a crisis made worse by inaction on climate change. Left unaddressed, it will also lead to voter suppression.
To be clear, voter suppression is any policy, practice or tactic that makes it harder for certain people to vote. It is politicians manipulating the rules to ensure they can win, regardless of voters’ will. It is candidates or campaigns intentionally telling voters the wrong day to vote, the wrong polling place or precinct in which to vote, or the wrong information to bring to vote. Voter suppression also includes strict voter ID requirements, the lack of polling place resources (such as functioning voting machines and a sufficient number of voting machines), the elimination of early voting or the shortening of early voting periods. While all those things count as voter suppression, in the 21st century, we need a more expansive definition. Today, voter suppression can also be elected officials or election administrators scheduling and conducting elections in the aftermath of natural disasters without ensuring voters can participate. Louisiana moved the election dates back. But in the areas that took a direct hit, polling locations will still be closed due to damage or lack of electricity, and little or no notice of where your polling location has been moved to.
It is not just intimidation at the polls or election administrators removing voters from the rolls that count toward limiting the franchise. It is also the combination of displacement following natural disasters and election officials refusing to accommodate impacted voters. For instance, Louisiana was scheduled to have four Constitutional Amendments on the ballot on Saturday. While the election has been delayed to Nov. 13, that is still insufficient time to allow voters to fully participate in the process.
It took years following Hurricane Katrina for the region to return to some semblance of normalcy, yet even today, many people have yet to be made whole. Given the region is repeatedly tormented by hurricanes and is still grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unlikely voters will be able to vote, let alone access polling places in predominately Black or poor communities. Election officials won’t be able to mail absentee ballots if postal workers cannot work. When mail service is shut down, absentee ballots cannot be reliably distributed or counted. To take the example one step further, if voters have been relocated out of the area or their homes have been destroyed by the storm, they will not receive absentee ballots or receive them in time to return them. We must allow those citizens that are constructively displaced, in shelters in other parts of the state and those in other states, to request a ballot to be sent to where they are, not their home address.
Hurricane season is the same every year. Any region susceptible to climate change-fueled natural disasters must have systems in place to protect the franchise. People who live in coastal America, up and down the Eastern Seaboard, are all at risk of voter suppression because they’re also at risk of natural disasters made worse by climate injustice. This is not the time for regressive voting policies. It is time to make voting as easy as possible for eligible voters, especially those in hurricane-prone regions. Unwillingness to do that means that some people, namely people of color, will be unable to participate fully in the franchise of voting. We must consider mass polling sites for early voting and election day as well as free transportation options.
Unfortunately, the same communities targeted by voter suppression are also the ones adversely impacted by the worst effects of the climate crisis. Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color are more likely to experience voter suppression such as removal from the voting rolls, lack of paid time off to vote, polling places farther from their homes, inadequate polling place resources, felony disenfranchisement and lack of early voting periods. These communities are also on the frontlines of the climate crisis, contributing very little to the climate crisis but disproportionately impacted by it.
Green America quoted Dr. Beverly Wright, a sociologist and CEO of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, who said that communities of color “are more likely to have toxic facilities sited near them, less likely to receive adequate protection to prevent disasters, and less likely to get the kind of immediate response White communities get when emergencies occur.” Wright and others have noted that communities of color are:
- More likely to breathe in polluted air.
- More likely to live near coal plants.
- More likely to live near toxic sites, including those housing waste from fossil-fuel infrastructure.
The whole point of voter suppression is to reduce the electorate and make it harder for Black people and communities of color to vote. What better way to limit the franchise than to implement stringent rules at the exact time people need more flexibility, not less? If we are honest, it impacts all voters at their most vulnerable moments, robbing them of the opportunity to have their voices and their votes heard.
Voting rights advocates must expand their definition of voter suppression to include the climate crisis impacts. And elected officials who favor elections that are fair and accessible must develop a game plan for hurricane season. To do anything less is irresponsible and unacceptable.
Nse Ufot is a founding member of the Black Southern Women’s Collective and executive director of the New Georgia Project.