Battered by hurricanes and the pandemic, Lakes Charles headed to polls on Election Day

Most Calcasieu Parish polling places were moved

Lake Charles voting
Voters from 30 precincts cast ballots at the Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles, La. It was the largest precinct in the state. (Photo by Julie O'Donoghue)

Zoe Glaspie wasn’t able to get up and go just down the road to vote like most people this year. She and her family had to drive over two hours and 140 miles to reach their polling location.

Glaspie lives in Lake Charles, but for the past month, her family has been crashing with relatives in Houston. They haven’t been able to stay in their own house since Oct. 8 when Hurricane Delta, a 100-mile-per-hour storm,  hit Southwest Louisiana.

Glaspie said she had wanted to take advantage of in-person early voting in October, but she couldn’t find the time to make the five-hour round trip until Election Day. She was relieved when voting went “smoothly” Tuesday, especially given the number of people that were expected to show up at her polling location.

“Voting is very important to me,” she said.

Election officials predicted 18,000 to 19,000 people would cast ballots Tuesday at Glaspie’s polling place, the Burton Coliseum Complex. That’s about 13 percent of Calcasieu Parish’s registered voters. 

The arena — known for hosting statewide high school basketball tournaments and rodeos — was the location of a combined 30 election precincts this year. It was the largest polling location in Louisiana — and one of the largest the state has ever seen. 
 
Voting has been difficult across the country in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s hard to imagine a place where voting has been more challenging than in Southwest Louisiana. The region was ravaged by back-to-back hurricanes. Delta came six weeks after Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm that crashed ashore in late August. 

Though Glaspie’s family was displaced by Delta, Laura, the most powerful hurricane to hit Louisiana in 160 years, was more devastating overall for the area.  That storm has left thousands of people with blue tarps on their roofs and devastated public infrastructure. The area’s electrical grid isn’t yet up to full strength. Debris is still piled up on curbs. 

Laura forced Louisiana officials to move 95 precincts, most of them in Calcasieu Parish. The storm marred all 123 precincts in Calcasieu and seventy percent of them were so damaged that they had to be relocated, said Lynn Jones, Calcasieu’s Clerk of Court who oversees local elections.

Jones decided to shift the polling sites primarily to three “mega-precincts” — the largest of which was Burton Coliseum. His primary concern, he said, was access to reliable electricity. Entergy couldn’t guarantee several polling stations wouldn’t lose power on election day. So Jones  had to pick locations with their own generators available, he said.

“We can’t be without electricity on Election Day. That won’t work,” Jones said. 

But Delta nearly derailed Jones’ mega-site plan when the storm arrived in October. Some of the megasites flooded after Delta. Fortunately, they ended up drying out enough that they were functional, Jones said. 

Registered voters who live in precincts that were moved to the mega-sites were mailed notifications about the relocation. Jones also had staff members stationed at the original voting sites on Election Day to redirect people who showed up to vote there.

People could have easily missed the notifications about their new polling places.  Many voters haven’t been able yet to move back into their permanent homes.

At the end of last month, the government was still paying for over 3,000 Southwest Louisiana residents to live in hotels after their homes were deemed uninhabitable. Thousands more like Glaspie are staying with family and friends, until more repairs on their houses can be done.

Michelle Walker said her family has been living out of the Golden Nugget Casino in Lake Charles for most of the last month. She said her house is livable, but she couldn’t get internet access for weeks. Her teenage son needed to be able to attend school remotely, so they moved to the hotel for the wireless connection. Their insurance company is paying for their stay.

Compared to that hassle — and the fact that her son has been out of school since March — voting at a new precinct was relatively easy. “It was really, really efficient,” Walker said after she voted at Burton Coliseum. “I never stopped moving once I got in there.”

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said his office spent weeks reaching out to people who might have been displaced since Laura hit. Everyone in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes was entitled to vote by mail because of the storms.

Ardoin used the temporary address of anyone who applied for assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Red Cross to send them information about how to apply for an absentee ballot. His office also put up signs around Southwest Louisiana encouraging people to participate in the election.

The outreach might have worked. Calcasieu received requests for about twice as many absentee ballots as they usually do, Jones said last week. Many of the requests were coming in from hotels in other parts of Louisiana, Texas and even Oklahoma — presumably from people displaced by the storm. 

Still, Jones’ biggest fear for Election Day was that the mega-precincts would be overwhelmed and people would end up having to wait hours to vote. 

“I don’t want a situation you know like you saw in Georgia and around the country that they were waiting in line for eight hours. My goal is keep it around an hour to an hour and a half,” he said in an interview last week.

There was good news for him. Voters at Burton Coliseum moved through the process much faster than that target.

“It only took us about 35 minutes to get through the voting line. I was amazed,” voter Nancy Lasher said outside the arena on Election Day. “I was expecting massive long lines — like standing and waiting around forever. But that wasn’t the case at all.”