Of the many hurdles black voters in Maryland face on their way to the polls, they now have a new one on their hands: Hurricane Sandy. The hurricane came and left in a matter of days, but with the storm’s timing, it could very well be much more than just an unprecedented natural disaster. It could also turn into a political one.
The storm forced Gov. Martin O’Malley to shut down early voting for two whole days in the state, and even though the polls reopened today, in states like Maryland where the turnout of black voters is being closely watched, the storm could well impact the election.
Maryland is a comfortably blue state, and is expected to hand President Obama an easy win. But the state’s voters will also be deciding on key ballot initiatives concerning immigrant rights and same sex marriage, which conservatives have often turned to use as a wedge issue for progressives. With two fewer days to cast their ballots and many eyes on the African American turnout, the storm has highlighted the critical role that early voting plays for making sure voters of color cast their ballots.
“The storm’s impact on early voting is certainly going to affect voters of color disproportionately more relative to other populations,” said Jon Rogowski, a political scientist at Washington University at St. Louis. But calculating the extent to which the storm’s reach could have electoral consequences depends on several factors, he said, like the viability of the infrastructure in place to manage the consequences of the storm, and the extent to which voters are distracted by their own efforts to get their homes and lives back together.
In the case of the presidential race, the storm could impact turnout and therefore affect the margins in the popular vote. “Part of the strategy from the progressive perspective is to bank as many votes as possible before election day so you’re shrinking the universe of people you have to reach on election day and also expanding the possibility and probability that people are going to vote,” said Mark McLaurin, political director for SEIU Local 500 in Maryland and Washington, D.C. Early voting is also a crucial for capturing the black vote. Voters of color take advantage of early voting at higher rates than white voters because they’re less likely to be able to carve out time away from work and family, and more likely to require the flexibility that early voting affords.
That turnout was happening in full effect in Maryland this weekend where Judith Browne Dianis, the co-director of the legal advocacy organization the Advancement Project, voted in Prince George’s County. Browne Dianis said she waited for seven hours this weekend to vote alongside a crowd that she estimates was “99.9 percent African-American.” She said that many voters showed up anticipating the wrath of Sandy, and wanted to get their voting out of the way. Indeed, in the two days of early voting Maryland had, more than 134,000 people (PDF) cast their ballots. A majority were registered Democrats.
Dianis Browne said voters at her polling site were excited about casting their ballot for the presidential race, but also stood in line debating the hot-button ballot initiatives Maryland’s facing this year, including referenda on a recently passed state DREAM Act and law granting same-sex couples access to marriage licenses. It’s because of those controversial ballot initiatives Maryland voters will weigh in on that African Americans, who are roughly 30 percent of the state and are reliably left-leaning voters, are facing serious political pressure from both sides of the immigration and gay marriage debate to turn out to vote.
But traditionally, the presence of ballot initiatives doesn’t in and of itself increase turnout, said Rogowski, though it is enough to mobilize other political figures and organizations to ramp up their advocacy efforts. In the case of Maryland’s Question 6, a referendum on a same sex marriage law passed by Maryland last year, the closely watched debate has brought even President Obama to the table. He’s offered his support for same sex marriage, and the protection of the law. Because the poll numbers on Question 6 have narrowed so tightly in recent months, McLaurin, who sits on the board of the Maryland Black Family Alliance, says he expects it to be a very close race. For that reason, “the results for the ballot initiatives will be very sensitive to impacts from the storm,” Rogowski said.
People of color, as well as the elderly and the young, immigrant and transgender voters, face a host of preexisting hurdles to casting their ballots, and Sandy presents yet another barrier. Not only did Maryland have to shut down early voting for two crucial days this week, but the storm has affected the state’s basic infrastructure. As of this morning, over 82,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric customers, centralized in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, are still without power.
“It’s hard to fault people for prioritizing taking care of things at home before figuring voting into their day to day priorities,” said Rogowski, adding that for people without power and water, “it’s going to take an even more persuasive effort from campaigns and other organizations to still motivate these people to turn out to vote.”
Allowing for the largest hurricane in Atlantic Ocean history to barrel through the Eastern Seaboard a week before the election was hardly something that political organizations factored into their GOTV strategy. For advocacy groups working to get communities of color to the polls, the next three days will be a frenzied push to maximize the remaining, and newly extended polling hours.
While Gov. O’Malley cancelled two days of early voting, he also extended Maryland’s early voting an extra day into November 2, and will shift polling hours from the original 10am-8pm to an expanded 8am through 9pm. The governor said on Tuesday that the new hours will account for “all but about 60 minutes,” of the time lost to the cancellation this week, the governor said, Politico reported. O’Malley said that those who are in line by 9pm will be allowed to vote. “It’ll give us more opportunities to get people out, and that’s what I expect we’ll be doing nonstop for the next 72 hours,” McLaurin said.
As Maryland hurries to put the state back in working order, there’s an especially urgent need for a just and equitable recovery, Rogowski said. “We want to make sure that communities that contain large numbers of African Americans and other minority groups receive just the same amount of attention that suburban and more upper class neighborhoods receive with restoring power and access to early voting,” Rogowski said.
As it is, people of color deal with more roadblocks to voting, Rogowski said. “When it comes to being helped after the storm, that’s going to have an electoral impact as well.”
“Overall I’m just hoping that in Maryland and other states hit by Sandy that the hurricane does not become a stumbling block for us, or become the reason for people to drop out and not be heard,” said Browne Dianis.