A helicopter view shows the flooding and devastation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Barriers to the Ballot Box

Published — September 24, 2020

First came the floods. Then came the polling place changes.

A helicopter view shows the flooding and devastation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Aug. 15, 2016. (Melissa Leake/USDA via Flickr)

This article was published in partnership with Stateline.


The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates betrayals of public trust. Sign up to receive our stories.

When historic floods overwhelmed East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, in August 2016, Jacqueline Mims’ house on Sherwood Street escaped the rising waters. It was “kind of like on a little island of slight elevation,” she said, while some streets in her neighborhood were navigable only by boat. Among the thousands of buildings inundated was the middle school where Mims voted.

Mims learned about her new polling place from the newspaper; she’s the only one on her block with a subscription. Other voters she spoke to or overheard on Election Day at the new precinct didn’t know about the changes in advance, though they managed to find their way to the new site.

Still, she began to wonder how many voters, struggling with displacement and other upheaval from the flooding, didn’t cast ballots. “Lots of people had trouble,” she said. 

Twenty-six percent of Black voters in East Baton Rouge Parish had their polling place changed between the 2012 and 2016 general elections, compared with 15% of white voters in the parish, according to a new analysis of polling place movement by the Center for Public Integrity and Stateline.

The changes to East Baton Rouge Parish’s polling places in the wake of the 2016 floods added confusion for voters already preoccupied with reconstructing their lives in the wake of the disaster. Many advocates say recovery was slower in the parish’s majority-Black neighborhoods, where residents already struggled with systemic inequities before the storm.

That has new relevance this year as COVID-19 disproportionately affects communities of color, while also forcing voters to contend with vast changes to the ways and places they vote. Just as Baton Rouge voters struggled to stay informed of polling places changes during the 2016 election, many now worry about their access to the ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic because of concern over the safety of in-person voting and the threat of slowed mail for absentee voting. Mims, for one, said she has repeatedly gone to her post office looking for answers about sporadic mail delivery in the lower-income North Baton Rouge area.

In Louisiana, the Republican Legislature and secretary of state and Democratic governor were unable to agree on an emergency plan governing voting rules for November. Voting rights advocates sued, and a federal judge last week ruled that, as in the state’s July primary, voters will be able to cite a series of coronavirus-related concerns to qualify to cast absentee ballots. 

Despite the state’s emphasis on in-person voting, the number of polling places across the state dropped between the 2012 and 2018 elections, the Public Integrity/Stateline analysis found. East Baton Rouge Parish had 10 fewer polling places in 2018, nearly a 7% reduction since 2012. That was the second-largest reduction in the state after Jefferson Parish, where changes affected approximately the same share of Black voters as white.

In 2018, East Baton Rouge Parish again reassigned a larger share of Black voters than white to new polling places, though the difference between the groups was smaller, the analysis found. About half of those 2018 polling place changes happened when local election officials returned precincts to their pre-flood polling places after the recovery. The parish had three more polling places in 2018 than in 2016 because some of the flooded polling places reopened.

Polling place changes happen for a long list of reasons, often benign. But they create obstacles for voters that can reduce turnout, studies have found. 

“I think there’s every reason to believe that every change is costly,” said Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California Berkeley, one of the authors of a frequently cited 2011 study that found changes in polling places created a “search effect” for voters that reduced turnout.

If the floods forced polling place changes that affected more Black voters, Brady said, election officials should have gone beyond the minimum notification requirements and taken extra steps to mitigate the effect of the changes. The parish’s registrar of voters and clerk of courts said they did, by posting signs outside precincts and posting staff outside closed precinct buildings to redirect voters. But local voting rights advocates and lawmakers interviewed by the Center for Public Integrity and Stateline feel election officials could have more aggressively tried to communicate the changes to overwhelmed voters beyond mailings and newspaper notices.

“Lots of people were displaced because, of course, their homes had been flooded, so their ability to know where their new polling location was certainly was an issue,” said Ashley Shelton, executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, a nonprofit that works to turn out infrequent voters of color.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, residents, public officials and voting rights advocates stress that the sudden, overwhelming flooding in south Louisiana knew no color, and huge swaths of the parish suffered. The parish, the most populous in the state, was also one of the hardest hit. Its population is nearly evenly split between Black and white. More white households were located within affected areas than Black households, an analysis of the flooding’s impact by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce found. But longtime local racial inequalities in housing and wealth exacerbated issues brought on by the floods, and for many voters added yet another barrier to the ballot. 

Lingering issues

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key parts of the federal Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, eliminating the requirement that jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting, including the state of Louisiana, seek permission from the U.S. Department of Justice for proposed voting changes. 

In the years since, watchdogs have raised alarms about changes and reductions in polling places and the impact of such changes on voters of color. Louisiana has featured prominently in the warnings. 

The state had 101 fewer polling places for the 2018 election than for the 2012 election, according to the Public Integrity/Stateline analysis, a reduction of nearly 5%. The state offers early voting, but an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice found the increased use of that option didn’t offset the impact of the statewide reduction in Election Day polling places since 2012.

In the 2016 presidential election, Republican Donald Trump won Louisiana, but Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won East Baton Rouge Parish. Turnout numbers are hard to parse: Black voter turnout fell across the country compared with 2012, and Louisiana and East Baton Rouge were no exception, according to an analysis of turnout data released by the secretary of state’s office. In East Baton Rouge, overall voter turnout and Black voter turnout were nearly the same in 2012. Between 2012 and 2016, overall voter turnout fell from 70% to 67%  and  Black turnout dropped from 69% to 63%, slightly more than the statewide drop in Black turnout.

The parish has long struggled with racial disparities. 

Baton Rouge got hit with a series of devastating events in 2016. There were the floods and the killing of Alton Sterling, a Black man, at the hands of two white police officers. The July shooting, which led to nationwide protests and a deadly standoff between police and a gunman two weeks later that left three officers dead, roiled the city and laid bare the racial strife that has defined many aspects of its history. In the aftermath, the federal government awarded a $1 million grant to “develop strategies to reduce the impact of trauma brought on by the events of 2016” in the parish. 

For 39 years, the city’s fire and police departments were under a federal consent decree for discriminatory hiring practices affecting Black and female applicants. The order was lifted just last year. In 2003, the city ended a 47-year-long legal battle over desegregating its public-school system, one of the longest running such fights in the country.

The inequality has fueled apathy among many Black voters there, said Edgar Cage, a leader of the community justice coalition Together Baton Rouge. Many Black people there think no matter what they do or how many jobs they work to make ends meet, or elections they cast a ballot, it won’t change their quality of life.

“It’s the systemic racism that existed, has existed and still exists,” he said. “… It’s a struggle for communities of color to survive.”

It is in this context that voting advocates view changes, and with a wary eye to the burdens the pandemic has brought to communities of color and economically underprivileged voters.

Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin had proposed an emergency plan for November that would allow people who test positive for COVID-19 to qualify for a mail ballot, a more restrictive plan than Louisiana used for the primaries, when voters could cite other COVID-related reasons to vote absentee.

To go into effect, the plan needed approval from the Republican-led state Legislature and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. The Legislature approved the plan, but Edwards said it is too restrictive and he would not.

The Power Coalition, together with other groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, sued in federal court, saying the plan was unduly restrictive during the pandemic. State election officials testified they were concerned about handling increased volume of mail ballots, as well as managing voters and polling places in parishes affected by Hurricane Laura. A federal judge last week ruled the state should expand access to absentee ballots to the same list of reasons it had adopted for its July primary.

East Baton Rouge Registrar Steve Raborn said he doesn’t expect many polling place changes this year, though the mayor last week asked the secretary of state’s office for permission to use a 200,000 square-meter entertainment complex as a polling location. If there are location changes, local voting rights advocates agree election officials need to go above and beyond in informing residents to avoid any repeat of 2016’s confusion.

The fallout of the 2016 floods

When the slow-moving storm came in August 2016, it parked itself over the capital city and the surrounding region for nearly a week, dropping as much as 30 inches of rain, flooding rivers and bayous and overwhelming ditches and drainage systems. The deluge turned neighborhoods into lakes, even those outside of traditional flood plains. Across the state, at least 13 people died, roughly 30,000 had to be rescued, and more than 10,000 were forced into shelters.

Residents wade through floodwaters from heavy rains in Baton Rouge in 2016. There were polling place changes in 2016, which added to the confusion of after the floods.
Residents wade through floodwaters from heavy rains on Aug. 12, 2016, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Before the storm, East Baton Rouge election officials had planned to move five polling places for the 2016 election, and only one had mostly Black voters.

Afterwards, though, the parish changed another 19 polling places, 15 of which had majorities of Black voters, according to the Public Integrity/Stateline analysis. Seven out of the 10 precincts where voters saw the largest increases in distance to their new polling places were majority Black precincts. Nearly all the distance changes were less than a mile, the analysis found.

Democratic state Sen. Regina Barrow had a feeling that voters in her north Baton Rouge district might have a hard time finding out that their polling place had changed. When she scoped out polling places shortly before the November election and saw small notices taped on just a couple windows of those sites, it confirmed her fear.

She made larger signs about the polling switches, in her campaign colors, even though she wasn’t on the ballot and had to spend her own money, and planted them at the old polling locations. She sent out robocalls about the changes.

Election Day, she said, was mayhem.

“There were a lot of people who did not know until the day of when they got there and saw the sign,” Barrow said. This year, Barrow said, “I can tell you that that’s something I am going to be monitoring.”

Brandon Abadie, the East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court’s elections administrator, whose office is headed by a Republican, said he placed staff at every old polling location during all voting hours with maps to tell voters their polling place had been moved. His office, he said, also staked large, professionally made signs near the main entrances of the old and new polling locations.

“The people, even more than the signage, were able to reach out to the voters driving up,” he said. “That was the best thing going forward.”

Ardoin’s spokesman did not respond to emails and phone messages regarding this article. In 2017, Ardoin, then first assistant in the secretary of state’s office, testified before a state advisory commission to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and pointed to those steps, saying he wasn’t aware of any instance in the state where they didn’t happen. “I don’t know what more we could do, but we attempt to do everything we can,” testified Ardoin. 

Erika Green, a Metropolitan Council member who was on the ballot in 2016, said that many residents whose homes flooded often had also lost their cars, which made it harder to get to a new voting location. “I know that Election Day we got a lot of calls, and people just kind of went back to where they were supposed to go,” she said.

Email records obtained via a public records request show that the secretary of state’s office brought up the possibility of creating a “mega precinct” to replace the flooded ones, something some smaller surrounding parishes also affected by the flooding chose to do. The East Baton Rouge registrar, Raborn, hesitated. “The flooded precincts are rather spread out,” he warned in an email exchange. Officials chose a series of replacement neighborhood polling locations rather than one large one. 

In an interview, Raborn, whose position is nonpartisan, stressed that finding polling places is always challenging, but was especially so after the floods. Public buildings, by law, are available as polling places, he said, but sometimes, when a school or recreation facility was damaged by the floods, there were no nearby public facilities to use, prompting him and his staff to drive neighborhoods searching for churches or other undamaged buildings that could accommodate voters. 

Half of Raborn’s 16-member staff, he said, were struggling with the damage the flooding had caused to their own homes. When his office tried to contact the custodians of churches or other facilities that could serve as replacement polling sites, many were affected, making it hard to access the buildings. Raborn called it “one of the most challenging times of my career just because of what had to be done and done quickly.” 

Raborn said he worked with the secretary of state’s office to make sure the voter information postcards with new polling place information were forwardable, and the secretary of state’s office sent out an extra, second mailing to active voters. Shelton and others point out that many people were displaced from their homes by the flooding and not necessarily receiving mail. In addition, some residents interviewed said they don’t recall getting an official notice.

“Had we had more time, perhaps there would have been more outreach,” Raborn said.

He added: “We worked really hard on it. Could some things have been done better? Well they almost always can, one way or the other.” 

Committed voters said they were able to make a plan, despite the wreckage, and figure out how to vote. Roderick Green, 56, who is Black, said he “lost everything. My house. Everything.” He still managed to vote. “Whatever I have to do, I just do it,” he said. 

Alma Stewart, founder and president of the Louisiana Center for Health Equity, organized a news conference and used her radio show to promote news of the 2016 polling place changes and said the registrar’s office was responsive and helpful in getting her the information she needed. 

But, she said, the reason she did those things is because she thinks more needed to be done to tell voters about changes. 

Stewart said reaching disadvantaged communities of color “is difficult” and “in many instances you have to do things very, very differently, and you have to make information available where they are or through trusted messengers.”

“These days a lot of people aren’t reading the newspapers,” she said. “They’re not watching a lot of news on television, so getting the messages out, it is definitely more of a challenge.”

Center for Public Integrity reporter Joe Wertz contributed to this article.

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