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With Elections Looming, Florence-Devastated Counties Try To Reach Voters

City of New Bern Twitter
Trent Court in New Bern, North Carolina, during Florence.

For people severely impacted by Hurricane Florence, voting may be the last thing on their minds. But state and county elections boards are working hard make sure people know their options.

Melonie Wray is dealing with a lot of questions from voters like, “What address can I use?” and “Can I vote at certain precincts?”

She's the elections director for Craven County, which has three flooded precincts and a lot of residents who haven’t returned home.

“We still have quite a number of displaced residents in some of the areas in New Bern in Craven County,” Wray said, “Especially downtown in some of the apartment complexes.”

She’s telling displaced voters to use the address of the home they lived in before the storm, unless they’ve moved from the area permanently.

The General Assembly passed the Elections Relief Bill earlier this month that extended the voter registration deadline for the 28 devastated counties to Oct. 15. The bill also approved $400,000 to inform residents of their voting options.

“We are working on a plan to basically saturate eastern North Carolina with information,” said Patrick Gannon of the State Board of Elections. “We still want to make sure that everyone in that area knows they still have options to vote.”

Gannon said the money will go toward radio, newspaper and Facebook ads, in addition to any local campaigns launched by county election boards.

The campaigns will instruct voters on how to request mail in absentee ballots, find one-stop early voting locations and identify their precincts.

Marcus Bass, with Advance Carolina, a group that advocates for equal voting rights, said that’s not enough.

“The money could be specifically supporting, not just the education aspect, but the actual facilitation of the ballot process,” Bass said.

Extending the early voting period, for example, or creating a mobile voting site.

But Gannon said the elections board doesn’t have the money or time to do such things with the election just a few weeks away.

Meanwhile, Craven County’s Melanie Wray says her staff is working tirelessly as the early voting period looms.

“As getting the word out, we're doing it by all means possible,” Wray said.

She’s even daring to be optimistic.

“The effect of the hurricane and the response of the government and the response of local officials, I’m hoping that it does generate more interest,” she said.

Wray said she predicts a 48 percent turnout, which would be a three to four percent increase from previous midterm elections.

Jessa O’Connor was an assistant digital news editor and Sunday reporter for WFAE.