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Gulf storm damage causes polling place moves, power outages

Published: Nov. 2, 2020 at 2:02 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 2, 2020 at 3:05 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Elections officials in the Deep South spent election eve tending to lingering storm damage from Hurricane Zeta and other storms that damaged buildings or left polling places without power ahead of Tuesday’s election.

Storm damage caused polling places to be moved in Louisiana, and power companies and election officials scrambled to restore power, or make sure generators were available, at polling places in Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. Election officials expressed confidence that the sites would be operational Tuesday.

Thousands of voters in southwest Louisiana will be casting ballots in different locations Tuesday because Hurricane Laura wrecked their traditional polling sites in late August, and they have not yet been repaired. Across the state in the New Orleans area and in other southeastern parishes, several dozen voting locations will be running on generator power because outages caused by Hurricane Zeta last week have not been fixed.

“No polling location will be without power on Election Day,” Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, the state’s chief elections officer, said in a statement.

By far, the greater disruption in Louisiana was caused by Laura in southwestern Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, where Ardoin’s office provided charts showing locations for 95 polling precincts have shifted because of the destruction of the Category 4 storm.

In rural Cameron Parish, most voters will be casting ballots at either a local fire station or a neighborhood market. Calcasieu Parish has created several consolidated voting sites, with most voters in Lake Charles casting their ballots at two mega-polling locations, the Burton Coliseum entertainment arena or the Lake Charles Civic Center. Elections officials have cautioned that the megasites may require longer waits for voters than usual.

Some polling sites in southeastern Louisiana will be operating on generators to keep machines and lights running because of outages caused by Hurricane Zeta, which made landfall in the state as a Category 2 storm. The number of voting sites that will require generators “gets lower and lower as each hour passes” and power is restored, said Tyler Brey, a spokesman for Ardoin’s office.

New Orleans Democratic Mayor LaToya Cantrell criticized the Republican-led secretary of state’s office Sunday for “failing to fulfill its duty” in providing the generators needed for polling sites, risking disenfranchisement of voters. But Brey said every polling location will have adequate power. He said the generators for voting sites were provided largely by Entergy, but also some by the state as well. Ardoin accused Cantrell of “trying to score cheap political points” with her criticism.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, had asked utility companies to prioritize restoration to voting locations even before Zeta struck.

Across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, more than 150,000 electrical customers had outages Monday because of recent storms, according to the utility tracking website poweroutage.us.

In Alabama, Zeta caused damage along a line stretching from the southwestern to northeastern counties of the state. Multiple Alabama voting places remained without power Monday, but generators will be provided to any that still lack service on Election Day, said Secretary of State John Merrill. He declined to say how many were without power, saying the number was rapidly reducing.

Merrill said all 1,980 polling location will have power on Tuesday, either through regular service or by generator.

A spokesman for Alabama Power said the company has assessed polling locations provided by election officials and is working to ensure that all polling locations in its service territory have power before the polls open Tuesday.

Officials in some of the hardest-hit counties spent the final day before the election trying to determine just how many places might lack electricity or have storm damage. In Talladega County, which has 26 polling sites, chief probate clerk Lawana Patterson said emergency management officials had told her “everything is in working condition.”

“I’m not saying everything is perfect, but I’m working on it,” she said.

Dallas County Probate Judge Jimmy Nunn said all but one of the county’s 29 voting places had power back on, and state emergency management officials were connecting a generator at the rural Beloit Community Center, where normal service had not been restored.

“They’ll have lights and everything, so people won’t even know they’re out,” Nunn said.

In neighboring Mississippi, seven counties had power outages. Electricity has been restored to all polling places in three of those counties -- Hancock, Jackson and Stone.

Three other Mississippi counties have a small number of precincts without power, but generators were available in two -– George and Greene –- and supervisors were meeting in Perry County to discuss buying generators.

In Georgia, two or three polling places remained without power Monday, said Gabriel Sterling, statewide voting system implementation manager.

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Deslatte reported from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi; and Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.