As Keith and Felicia Scott looked at the ruins of their flooded-out house in North Carolina, the mold growing up the walls and the loose floorboards lying waterlogged at their feet, the presidential election was about the furthest thing from their minds.
“I know it’s something we need to focus on, but it’s kind of hard to focus on that when you’ve got all this going on,” said Keith Scott, a 49-year-old state prison employee who lives outside Lumberton, one of the areas inundated by Hurricane Matthew nearly two weeks ago. “Right now, you’ve got to find a place to live.”
Of the 130 million Americans expected to cast ballots this year, the thousands of people in North Carolina whose lives have been upended by the flooding face some of the biggest challenges.
As in-person, early voting began Thursday in the state, some roads were still impassable, bridges were washed out, and untold numbers of people were still out of their homes. Many were busy just trying to put their lives back together.
Some of the most heavily damaged areas are largely Democratic with a high concentration of black voters, and there are concerns the disarray might depress turnout and sway the outcome of the White House race in this battleground state, where polls suggest a tight race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump and where Barack Obama beat John McCain in 2008 by a mere 14,177 votes out of 4.3 million cast.
The hurricane dumped more than a foot of rain up to 100 miles inland, triggering severe flooding across a large area of eastern North Carolina. Towns such as Lumberton and Tarboro were inundated. As of Tuesday, more than 1,000 people were in emergency shelters; others were staying with family or friends, their homes uninhabitable.
The Scotts said they still hope to vote. Others sounded determined to do so.
In Tarboro, where signs block drivers from getting into some neighborhoods and piles of damaged drywall, carpet, couches and other belongings line the sidewalks, 30-year-old Cordell Pettaway and his mother have a lot of work ahead of them before they can move back into their home in a historic black neighborhood: pulling up subflooring, removing wet furnishings and eventually getting the electricity turned back on.
Still, mother and son planned to go to the polls.
“A lot of people died for us to express our opinion,” Pettaway said.
Voters in 34 states have begun casting ballots either in person or by mail. Nearly 3 million votes have been cast already, far outpacing the rate for this period in 2012. Some voters in North Carolina waited more than an hour on Thursday to cast ballots, while it took some people in one metro Atlanta county four hours to vote Monday, the first day of early voting in Georgia.
About 552,000 registered voters live in the six North Carolina counties that got the brunt of the storm, with just over half of them Democrats.
Two early voting locations in Columbus and Lenoir counties were too damaged to open, but there were other sites voters could use. State election officials said Election Day polling places in at least a half-dozen counties are so damaged they may not be usable on Nov. 8. With three weeks to go, officials are scrambling to find new sites.
Election officials in a few of the affected counties have been visiting shelters to pass out voter registration forms ahead of this week’s deadline, which was extended after the Democratic Party went to court. Similar orders were issued in Florida and Georgia as a result of the hurricane.
There are signs the storm has affected voter registration. During the final week leading up to the 2012 deadline, the 14 counties hit hardest by Matthew recorded 4,078 applications. Last week, they recorded just 2,608, though it is possible there are more that have yet to be processed. Robeson County received 179 applications during the final week in 2012 but just 14 last week.
North Carolina’s beleaguered voters do have a few things working to their advantage: Early voting lasts 17 days, and voters have until Nov. 1 to request an absentee ballot. Also, same-day registration is allowed during early voting.
But voters will largely be left on their own to request an absentee ballot from their local election office or to get to the polls.
“We’re going to continue to provide information about all options,” said state elections executive director Kim Strach. “For some people, they will have very limited options.”
Voter outreach groups are mobilizing to help.
In Fayetteville, the NAACP office was flooded and chapter president Jimmy Buxton said all the computers, printers, paperwork and furniture were destroyed. The office phone line has been routed to his personal cellphone as Buxton tries to find locals who have been displaced and to arrange rides for them to a polling place.
He said absentee voting works only if a person has a mailing address where the ballot can be sent. He expressed frustration that state officials are not doing more to help people vote.
“We have no resources right now,” Buxton said