Remembering a Surprising Lesson from Hurricane Katrina

By Kay Stimson, Director of Communications and Special Projects, National Association of Secretaries of State
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina violently slammed into the Gulf Coast, leaving more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region displaced, Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler is looking back and issuing a somber reminder to state officials: Make sure that your contingency planning for disasters includes elections.
Schedler had to conduct the entire 2006 Louisiana election cycle under disaster-recovery conditions after Katrina pummeled New Orleans and many other parts of the state. His experience in tackling the voting challenges left in the wake of the storm would prove to be invaluable to other secretaries of state when Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast just before the 2012 presidential election. He was tapped to co-chair the National Association of Secretaries of State, or NASS, Task Force on Emergency Preparedness for Elections, a bipartisan group with members from 24 states that produced recommendations on how states can better cope with holding elections in the aftermath of a disaster.
“No one ever wishes for a disaster to strike, but as public officials, our duty is to plan and prepare for them,” said Schedler. “Having experienced firsthand the effects that storms such as Rita and Katrina had on elections in Louisiana, the challenges are clear. States must have a good contingency plan in place to help deal with polling place changes, power outages, equipment failures, poll worker shortages and a whole list of nightmare scenarios that can disrupt voting on Election Day.”
In 2013, the NASS task force reviewed state laws regarding elections and disaster preparedness and found that only a small minority of laws required the development of an election emergency contingency plan. In addition to urging election officials to work more closely with state emergency management officials to address this shortcoming, the task force’s general recommendations included the following:
  • Be prepared to address the topic of postponement. In 2013, only a third of states reported having a law that detailed the process by which an election may be suspended, delayed or postponed in the event of an emergency situation. In most of those states, the decision may be made by the governor or chief state election official, or a combination of the two. A state of emergency usually must be declared before any election activities can be postponed.
  • Plan for ways to keep the polls open. Election officials need clear guidelines for managing polling place changes, as well as handling polling place power outages, poll worker shortages, long lines and paper ballots. States also should have procedures in place for securing voting machines and election materials in emergency situations where there are evacuations and other conditions that can disrupt normal operations.
  • Be ready to help enfranchise voters. Strategic planning efforts should focus on assisting citizens who may require alternative voting options due to disaster conditions, including first responders who may be called away from home to help with response efforts. States that have dealt with major emergencies have stressed the importance of using existing absentee, mail and early voting procedures to facilitate voting in emergency situations.
  • Make a commitment to reach people. As Election Day approaches, communicating voting rules and polling place changes to voters affected by an emergency must be a top priority for state and local governments. Sending text message notifications via mobile phones has proven to be an effective public outreach method in a number of emergency-stricken jurisdictions. Finding ways to help election officials and emergency management personnel quickly send joint communications also can be helpful.
The full report from the NASS Task Force on Emergency Preparedness for Elections can be found here
According to the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, “Following the recommendations made by NASS would go a long way toward preparing jurisdictions for the next potential disaster that could disrupt an election.”
As we head into the 2016 presidential election cycle, the lessons of Katrina loom large. Ensuring states are prepared well ahead of disasters means no one is denied their right to vote due to an unforeseen event. 
“While the memory of Katrina is still quite vivid, it is my hope that the lessons learned in terms of elections can be one positive legacy of the storm,” said Schedler. “Despite the enormous challenges of working in a post-Katrina New Orleans, democracy occurred when we held our elections and it gave people a great sense of accomplishment to cast their ballots. It was a significant moment in the recovery.”
Help spread the word: Join Secretaries of State in celebrating September 2015 as National Voter Registration Month, including National Voter Registration Day on September 22, 2015!



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