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How to weather-proof our elections

- November 7, 2013

Steve Helber / AP

It was a pretty pleasant day for this week’s statewide elections in both Virginia and New Jersey.  But the recent anniversary of Hurricane Sandy reminds us that sometimes the weather does affect elections.  In this guest post, Rice University political scientist Robert Stein tells us how to help ensure our elections can withstand extreme weather.

Everyone complains about the weather, but few do anything about it.  This may not true for local election officials’ response to the challenges Hurricane Sandy posed in conducting the 2012 election. Researchers have consistently found that inclement weather on and before Election Day has had a significant and negative effect on voter turnout; this was no less true in jurisdictions most adversely affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.   In a report I prepared for the President’s Commission on Election Administration I found voter turnout declined 2.8 percent between 2008 and 2012 in counties most impacted by Hurricane Sandy. This effect persists when controlling for a host of factors specific to the 2012 election, individual counties and their respective states.
But there is a silver lining with important lessons for how elections are conducted. Local elections officials in states and counties affected by Hurricane Sandy found two ways to mitigate the hurricane’s depressing effect on voter turnout: early voting and the consolidation of the Election Day polling places.
Among counties most affected by Hurricane Sandy, voter turnout declined less in states and counties that allow early voting. Being able to vote several days before Election Day and at many different locations gave voters more opportunities to vote, especially when voters’ Election Day polling place may have been inaccessible and unusable as a result of Hurricane Sandy.  However, early voting helped voters in only one state affected by Hurricane Sandy: Maryland, which adopted early voting for the first time in 2012.
Local official election officials also reduced Hurricane Sandy’s impact by consolidating the number of Election Day polling places — either by choice or necessity.  In counties affected by Sandy, the number of polling places per 1,000 voters was reduced by 10 percent while the number of poll workers per voting place increased by more than third. The result was fewer polling places, but on average larger polling places with more staffing to help voters.  This dramatic change boosted voter turnout. Moreover, this same feature — fewer but larger polling places — boosted turnout in counties unaffected by Hurricane Sandy, albeit to a much smaller extent.
Why would this be true?  A smaller number of larger polling places actually increases voter access to these polling places and more efficiently processes of voters on Election Day.   Elsewhere, Greg Vonnahme and I have shown that larger and more visible polling sites make it easier for voters to find their designated site.  A larger number of parking spaces, voting machines, and poll workers then allows voters to vote more quickly.  With more staff at each location, poll workers can specialize in tasks such as checking in voters or assisting them with their ballots, allowing them to work more efficiently and serve voters better. The efficient use of poll workers should help voters who need information about where they should vote and the necessary voter identification.
After natural disasters and emergencies occur, larger and more centrally located polling places — hotels, supermarkets, stadiums, and larger public buildings — should be more accessible. Anecdotal evidence suggests that county election officials in hurricane-affected areas relocated smaller polling places at neighborhood elementary schools to larger and more centrally located facilities.  Whether this was intentional or necessitated by hurricane damage is uncertain.  What is clear is that the reconfiguration of voting places did mitigate Hurricane Sandy’s negative effect on voter turnout.