Kinston, N.C. — Sandbags are stacked around the Lenoir County Board of Elections office, said Dana King, just in case the Neuse River rises out of its banks, across the road and into her parking lot this weekend.
King's office is continuing to process voter registrations, take requests for absentee ballots and prepare for the start of early voting on Oct. 20, even though she may not be able to get to some of her early voting locations before next week.
"If the water goes down, Pink Hill isn't going to be a problem," King said of the town hall that doubles as polling place. For right now, it's dry, but people can't drive there. Two other early voting sites are swamped, she said. As for locations that she would use on Nov. 8, Election Day, 12 of them are in the south of the county where she's been unable to check.
"We are completely blocked off from the south side of the county right now," she said.
Q&A: Voting in election 2016 Elections officials in Lenoir and other counties hard hit by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Matthew say they are preparing to move forward with voting as best they can. But they said it's unlikely all of the state's early voting locations will be open on Oct. 20, and it remains to be seen how many Election Day polling places will be shut down, if any.
"It looks as though, right now, the good news is every county board of election in the state is open," state Elections Director Kim Strach told a meeting of the State Board of Elections on Thursday. Some counties don't have Internet access or power, she said, but all are at least operating in some way.
Strach said she has the power to move polling sites and take other steps as required to deal with damage from the flood. She told board members she'd be ready to make those moves as requested by local boards.
In Robeson County, one the areas hardest hit by flooding, county Elections Director G.L. Pridgen said one room in his county office had some water seep in on the carpet but is otherwise undamaged.
"Right now, as far as we know, all of our early voting sites are intact," Pridgen said.
One location that the county uses on Election Day has been damaged, he said, but the county will be able to shift to an alternate location a mile up the road.
Looking for more time to register
Of course, it's just not just polling places and public buildings that are cut off or flooded by the storm. Thousands of homes have been damaged – many of them still underwater – forcing their residents to flee to shelters or the homes of friends and family.
That expansive flooding is why leaders with both the state NAACP and Democratic legislators have called for the state to extend its voter registration deadline.
"I came all the way up here with the hope that people will hear our plea," Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, said at a news conference in front of the State Board of Elections Office in Raleigh.
Pierce's district also includes parts of Hoke, Richmond and Robeson counties, all of them dealing with significant fallout from the storm.
Many residents, he said, fled their homes without the documents needed to register to vote. Extending the voter registration deadline into next week would give them time to retrieve that information.
"It's obvious we ought to take some remedial action," Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, added.
Strach and other state elections officials said Thursday that the state would keep the voter registration deadline at 5 p.m. Friday. However, because mail service has been slowed by the storm, she said that local offices would accept mailed-in voter registrations until next Wednesday, as long as the registration form was dated Oct. 14 or before.
Voters can also submit registrations through Friday at state Division of Motor Vehicle offices, public libraries or public assistance agencies such as Department of Social Services offices.
Meeting with members of the State Board of Elections by phone Thursday, Strach emphasized that people could register to vote and vote the same day during the 17-day early voting period. Those taking advantage of same-day registration need to show a driver's license, other government identification or a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document.
If people left home without those paper documents, Strach said, they can show electronic versions accessed on their mobile phones. As a last resort, she said, people can vote provisionally and then show proof of identity up until the state's canvass day, Nov. 18, and still have their votes count.
Although state law gives Strach the authority to act, she asked board members for their input. The five-member board generally endorsed Strach's approach to dealing with the emergency. But Joshua Malcolm, who is from Robeson County, said they need to be ready to act on behalf of voters displaced by the storm.
"If any of you ... flew over Lumberton, you might not be of the opinion that things are going to work out for the people there," he said, listing off streets that are underwater. "Even after the waters recede, they're not going to be returning soon."