Twenty-seven days before the 2018 midterm elections, Hurricane Michael made landfall on the Florida panhandle and devastated tens of thousands of homes and buildings, displacing families and forcing the closure of multiple polling locations in eight impacted counties. The polling place consolidation led to a 7% decline in voter turnout that year, which was roughly the equivalent of 13,800 ballots going uncast in the election, according to analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice.
Climate change means that extreme weather events like hurricanes are becoming increasingly frequent and devastating due to both their intensity and the fact that most existing infrastructure can’t compete with chronic flooding, high winds, and extreme heat. But organizers and elections experts are particularly concerned about the potential of future hurricanes to throw off election-day proceedings, especially because putting an election back on track requires a level of political will from leadership that many say is lacking.
While extreme weather itself is not an intentional form of voter suppression, experts warn that the combination of state legislatures that have proven themselves hostile to climate change legislation and subpar gubernatorial extreme weather response plans create a scenario in which the electorate’s voice isn’t being heard. Some grassroots organizations are already experienced at adapting to extreme weather events, but addressing both issues at scale requires systemic action, experts say.
Without substantive efforts to remedy the damage of climate change-induced weather on democratic systems, the voices of those most silenced and already underrepresented in government risk further marginalization.
Weather challenges at the ballot box
Hurricane season spans half the year in states like Florida, from June through Nov. 30, which puts elections at risk of coinciding with intense storms. As global temperatures rise, the frequency and strength of these hurricanes increase because hurricanes get their energy from warm ocean water. Not only are more storms making landfall, but they’re impacting more people as regional populations shift. Take Florida, for example: in 1960, the statewide population hovered around three million people. Now, however, there are 22 million people who call Florida, a state surrounded by water, home.
It’s also a state that has neglected to substantively address the root causes of climate change, namely fossil fuel extraction and use. Rather than shape policy to belay the culprits of ocean acidification, wetland loss, and hurricane intensity, leadership in the Sunshine State is focusing upwards of $1 billion on infrastructure resiliency only.
That lack of prioritization in addressing the root causes of climate change directly affects voter participation, particularly for communities already dealing with systemic neglect and poor resourcing. There are multiple ways that extreme weather events can make it harder for people to vote, said Nathaniel Stinnett, founder of the Environmental Voter Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan voter mobilization organization.
“Certainly, the most powerful examples are after hurricanes,” he said.
Hurricanes often delay when officials mail ballots to voters, which Stinnett said was the case after Hurricane Ian made landfall in September. In addition to mail ballot challenges, Stinnett said that election officials will often decide to close or consolidate polling locations due to transportation, staffing, and building issues.
“Almost by definition, that means that a lot of people are going to have to travel further in order to vote,” Stinnett said.
This disproportionately impacts voters from under-resourced communities, especially if they’re juggling multiple responsibilities and time constraints due to work, caregiving, lack of reliable transportation, and more. And if voters are weighing the cost-benefit analysis of how far they have to travel to vote, they might not go at all.
Election outcomes are tied to turnout, which means that candidates have a vested interest in making it easier for their potential voters to get to the ballot box—and vice-versa for voters who might not share their values. Stinnett said that the same voters who are more likely to face hurdles to voting are also those likely to vote in favor of progressive legislation or candidates tackling climate change, like young people, people of color, and low-income people.
“Ballot access is really closely intertwined with the climate crisis, and perhaps more specifically, [with] the environmental movement gaining more political power,” Stinnett said.
Chilling effects of climate change on voter participation
That’s not to say Floridians aren’t interested in addressing climate change. According to the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication, 56% of Florida residents believe that global warming is caused by human activities and 64% say that global warming is affecting the weather. Another 60% feel that the state’s governor should do more to address global warming.
Current Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is up for reelection this year, but whether or not voters have the chance to make their voices heard will be determined by the consequences of extreme weather and how the state’s top election officials—DeSantis and his Republican Secretary of State Cord Byrd—react to such events. In 2018, DeSantis issued an executive order that closed polling locations in the eight impacted counties while providing no additional emergency funding to construct new polling places near impacted voters.
Robert Stein, a professor of political science at Rice University who has extensively studied the impact of hurricanes on election outcomes, said he believes the governor will shift election proceedings this year through executive order to extend the early voting period in the state.
He doesn’t believe that voter suppression laws, or suppression-like impacts from weather are the biggest threat going into elections. Stein said that there isn’t really evidence yet that voter suppression laws seriously impact elections, though it should be said that voter suppression laws disproportionately impact already-marginalized voters, as well as aim to tackle a problem that doesn’t exist, such as voter fraud. Rather, what concerns him is the decline in poll workers that we may see this election season.
“You can run an election without voters, but you can’t run an election without poll workers,” Stein said.
What is known, however, is that laws aimed at making voter participation more difficult are targeting certain people. There are a number of overarching systemic factors that push some groups to stay home on election day, said Alex Birnel, the advocacy director of MOVE Texas, which mobilizes young Texas voters.
Birnel said that we can see a “cumulative effect of a matrix of voting laws that lead to what we sometimes describe as the ‘chilling effect.’” This chilling effect is the product of overcomplicating voting systems, criminalizing some voter participation, and increasing the risk of mistake-making, all of which can depress a voter’s desire to participate.
When a storm does hit, it’s not easy to adjust election proceedings and establish new voting rules on the fly, but a healthy democracy is a flexible one, said Kira Romero-Craft, the director of legal strategies at Demos, a progressive think tank. It’s the responsibility of elected officials to make voting as easy as possible, but they often fail or refuse to take action.
When elected officials do shift election day logistics in the aftermath of an extreme weather event, it’s imperative that the changes be communicated. So often, and especially when emergency resources are being put toward material needs of housing, food, and water access, communicating that an early voting period has been extended can fall by the wayside.
Moreover, these changes don’t “mean anything unless the community knows,” Romero-Craft said. “Without that public communications campaign, then it doesn’t really have the impact that should be intended to be responsive to the moments.”
Extreme weather can still motivate voters
Some states are better at making changes to account for extreme weather events during election periods than others. Romero-Craft said that California and Oregon have election laws in place to address the consequences of wildfires, which have grown more frequent because of climate change. Both states have policies to extend voter registration deadlines, and California permits voters to cast a provisional ballot at any polling location, which is helpful for voters who are displaced outside their home county after a wildfire.
Election law differs across the country, from county to county, which means that the risks of not getting accurate information in time to participate in an election will undoubtedly fall on some voters more than others.
“We are really concerned for new American voters [and] we are concerned about the youth,” Romero-Craft said.
Both of these demographics have lower voter registration rates than voters with longer voting histories, like older Americans and Americans born in the U.S. Young people, she added, also have higher rates of ballot rejection when they do vote.
Communities that already feel disconnected from electoral systems and unheard by those in government may be less likely to seek out alternative ways to cast their ballot after an extreme weather event. In particular, Romero-Craft said, communities of color may be more likely to feel that their vote doesn’t count or won’t make a difference, and may be dissuaded by dual challenges present in states with multiple voter restriction laws and high frequency of climate change-induced weather events, like Florida and Texas.
But electoral organizers and those affiliated with voter-turnout organizations say that it’s possible to use the matrix of laws that make voting more difficult as well as the worsening outcomes of the climate crisis as an organizing platform itself.
For instance, Birnel said that his organization had to adapt quickly to the effects of winter storm Uri, which impeded the state’s primary in mid-February 2021. Birnel said that state elections officials failed to shift the eligibility criteria for mail-in ballot voting available to everyone who was impacted by the storm, which to him demonstrated a lack of interest in adapting to the “new extremes of our reality, either under pandemic or climate crisis-borne conditions or [from an] energy grid collapse.”
Texas residents are asked to conserve energy during storms or extreme weather events, Birnel said, which puts the onus of adapting to climate change on those least responsible for the consequences of global warming. This is an opportunity to shine a light on the fossil fuel projects that voters can have an impact on at the ballot box, and Birnel said that get-out-the-vote efforts include talking about changes at the municipal level in some Texas cities.
Putting all the responsibility for addressing climate change onto consumers is nothing new, but young voters are tired of seeing the planet’s health and their access to the ballot treated as an afterthought. The lack of climate change legislation is actually politicizing young people who are “taking that anger to the ballot box,” Birnel said.