Information from NASS on the situation in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana

The following message was sent out by Leslie Reynolds, Executive Director, National Association of Secretaries of State last week:

Wednesday, I had the privilege of meeting with the EAC, our colleagues at NCSL, NACRC, IACREOT, the Election Center and NASED, congressional staff, Homeland Security and the Justice Department and most important of all:

– Sec. Eric Clark of MS, along with two of his staff members Jay Eads and Chuck Bearman;

– Angie LaPlace, the LA Commissioner Elections, and staff member Sherrie Hadskey representing Sec. Al Ater

– Janice McDonald, the AL Director of Elections, representing Sec. Nancy Worley

Everyone came together to determine the immediate and long term election-related needs of the areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina. And most importantly, how we all might be able to coordinate efforts to assist areas impacted.

State of Mississippi

Sec. Clark of MS said that while they do not have the water damage suffered by parts of AL and much of LA, many MS counties have experienced a complete loss of infrastructure. Sec. Clark said that because HAVA funding was not appropriated by the federal government for the final authorized year, MS was already facing a serious problem securing the number of voting machines needed by each county. The counties were going to have to undertake a significant financial burden to support the mandates of HAVA, but now with many counties devastated by the Hurricane, he doesn’t see how they will manage. He reported that Katrina destroyed infrastructure, voting machines and the buildings that served as polling places.

If there is some good news, it is that MS is in the process of implementing their statewide voter registration database and the counties in the southern part of the state have been entered into that database. The bad news is that many of the original records in that area have been damaged or destroyed. However, Sec. Clark did say that unlike LA, he thought that many of the residents of MS were able to remain in the state and that finding MS voters may not be as difficult as it will be elsewhere.

Additionally, MS is the process of implementing a ‘nearly statewide voting system.” The counties had the option to opt in or out of a statewide contract for equipment. The overwhelming majority of counties did opt in to the contract, so they will be getting new voting equipment shortly. The ones that didn’t opt-in may still have the opportunity to do so. However, the counties were going to have to shoulder a large financial obligation because of incomplete HAVA funding, now they also have the expense of rebuilding their communities.

Sec. Clark reported that he was very concerned about the HAVA deadlines and hoped that in addition to full funding, Congress (and DOJ) would take Hurricane Katrina into consideration when those deadlines approached.

Sec. Clark also reported that MS has local elections in September and October of this year and there was uncertainty about the authority to postpone those elections. He asked that we provide some information on state laws that do exist. I explained that some of the groups present had looked at this issue last year prior to the Presidential election and that the information was available. Below you will find a link to a September 2004 CRS paper that looks at the issue of emergency powers to postpone elections in the states. Please keep in mind that this paper was done at this time last year, so if something was done in your last legislative session to address this, please let us know and we will update the information.

State of Alabama

Janice McDonald, AL State Elections Director, reported that many counties in AL are still recovering from Hurricane Ivan and are now dealing with the destruction caused by Katrina. She stated that six counties on the western side of the state were impacted with damage to equipment and polling places. She also reported that many areas are still inspecting the damage so there isn’t a complete reporting. She said that AL does have many misplaced voters so major efforts will have to be put in place to remind residents to update their voter registration information.

State of Louisiana

Angie La Place, the Louisiana Commissioner of Elections, reported that they will have to delay the implementation of their statewide voting system. She too was concerned about the HAVA deadlines and the challenges they will face in the coming months. She reported that they lost over 2000 voting machines (all the equipment in New Orleans was electronic), 500 polling places (many sites are in people’s homes), and volumes of original records. They have a statewide voter database in place, but the database doesn’t include a digitized signature and LA law requires matches with signature records. She and Sherry Hadskey reported that because much of what needed to be inspected was either still underwater or contaminated and off limits to anyone, they really don’t have a complete picture on the damage. FEMA had indicated to LA that they will replace the voting equipment that was destroyed. That surprised most people in the room. They are worried about the ability of vendors to replace the volume of equipment lost and even if they were, equipment storage facilities have been destroyed. Construction crews are not being allowed in and building supplies aren’t available.

LA is considering the use of Vote Centers and “vote by mail,” however they face a daunting challenge of locating all of their displaced voters to provide information on requesting an absentee ballot or re-registering to vote where they now reside. The Post Office is working with them and FEMA will develop a database of people – where their original residence was and where they are currently staying — that will help track down voters. She did report that she was already starting to receive voter registration applications in the mail. They are also looking into possibilities of voting sites like large box store chains or grocery stores. They were encouraged to work with civil rights and disability groups and reconvening their HAVA planning committee in order to include all interested parties in the disaster recovery process.

LA has already posponed some of their local elections, but they have an election scheduled in February in New Orleans. There were 300,000 voters in New Orleans who are now displaced. They currently have no polling places and no way to reach out to voters or poll workers. LA will need assistance in February if that election is held. Volunteers will be needed to help man the polling places and deal with the volume of mail generated by the increase in vote by mail.

The group gathered also heard two presentations, one from David Leahy, former election official from Miami-Dade County and one from Pat Owens, former mayor of Grand Forks, ND. Both gave first hand accounts of disaster recovery, working with FEMA, length of time before some sense of normalcy returns, and lessons learned.

The national organizations present said that many of their members (including ours) are waiting with offers of assistance, but wanted to find out what the needs were and how those offers should be coordinated. LA, AL, and MS each agreed to appoint a contact person in their state to coordinate offers of assistance. I can be the point of contact outside the state that assists that person.

Please let me know if you are able to provide assistance in any of the following areas:

– Records retrieval & restoration – people with expertise and necessary equipment. Quite a few of the Secretaries
have Archives as part of their responsibility in the state, so hopefully some of you will have suggestions on water-damaged records.

– Expertise on establishing vote-by-mail programs (including statutory language)

– Expertise on establishing vote centers, satellite voting sites (including statutory language)

– Volunteers to help staff voting sites in February for the election in New Orleans

– Suggestions for ways to reach out to voters displaced by the storm with info on absentee voting or re-registering in new location- there was some discussion of a public service campaign on which NASS and other groups might be able to assist.

We’ll continue to update our blog with information on this situation as we receive it.