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'You've lost your home...

My World's on Fire
'You've lost your home...
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #24 • View online

My World’s on Fire is a free newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. My goal is to help you feel a bit more at ease about our unpredictable world by equipping you with in-depth reporting and insights. I can only do that with your continued support, so please subscribe and share!
Earlier this week, I was walking outside, speaking with a source in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. On my end of the conversation in Southern California, the air was thicker than usual, carrying smoke and debris from the nearby eruption of fires in Orange County. Nearly 100,000 people ultimately evacuated.
On her end, the air was calm, but the forecast was troubling. In the following days, the threat of another named storm – the 27th this season – would become clear, and residents would begin preparations for Hurricane Zeta.
Considering the fact that Election Day falls during both the hurricane and fire seasons, you might assume there are disaster-specific voting policies in place for often-impacted communities. But, as some regular newsletter readers might remember, reports in recent years have revealed that isn’t always the case.
“This is like a well-organized voter suppression that actually was caused by a natural disaster,” another Calcasieu Parish resident, Tasha Guidry, told journalist Carly Berlin of the challenges of voting there this year after two hurricanes. As Berlin reported for Southerly and the Pulitzer Center, residents still reeling from those recent disasters have struggled to receive information about voting and candidates, let alone receive their ballots.
For the past month, I’ve been compiling some resources for disaster-impacted voters on Twitter. After reading that article, I started doing research to see if any areas had come up with supportive solutions, which led me to the topic of today’s newsletter.
Behold, the Santa Cruz County VoteMobile trailer:
Photo: VoteMobile trailer, image courtesy of Santa Cruz County Clerk/Elections Facebook
“I’ve always wanted to have more flexibility with bringing voting to people,” Gail Pellerin said by way of introducing the initiative. Pellerin is the Santa Cruz County Clerk, and her dedication to the job is clear from her Twitter handle.
As she explained by phone, she was inspired by other mobile voting initiatives she’d come across in California – a quick Google search turns up similar concepts in Kentucky, Georgia, and Colorado, too. The pandemic was the push to actually purchase (and patriotically deck out) a trailer, in hopes of better serving voters in this untraditional election. Pellerin figured they could set it up at places like residential care facilities, where people might be less likely or able to make it to the polls this year.
Then, in August, the CZU Lightning Complex wildfire scorched acres across Santa Cruz County, displacing thousands and destroying homes, businesses, and other buildings in its path. Now, as Pellerin explains, the VoteMobile trailer has taken on a new significance.
“We can now go to areas that have been ravaged by the fires where people have lost their homes and provide for an easy, accessible way for them to get a ballot,” she says, adding, “You’ve lost your home, you’re not going to lose your right to vote.”
Pellerin says “hundreds” have utilized the trailer so far, which has been rolling up to pre-announced locations throughout the month. Staffed by elections officials, the trailer is a place for voters to get their questions answered (in English and Spanish), drop off their ballots if they have them, or get registered and vote if they don’t. For those displaced by the fire who are now staying outside of the county, Pellerin says they have been attempting to do other forms of outreach – when we spoke, she was in the process of trying to get ballots to one family that had relocated to Pennsylvania.
“There was a lot of confusion among the folks who have lost their homes thinking that when they did a forwarding through the USPS that that would work for their ballots,” she says. “And it doesn’t.”
Another common misconception she’s heard is that residents need to re-register for their temporarily addresses – which isn’t the case, Pellerin says, for those planning to rebuild within the county. All you need to do is update your mailing address so that the ballot goes to the right place.
The Santa Cruz Elections Department shares information like this on a specific page for fire survivors, and it’s also active on social media (I’m personally a big fan of this video they released, which tracks the path of a mailed ballot). Altogether, their approach provides multiple ways for voters to receive critical information.
“Just having flexibility with people is really important,” Pellerin explains of her approach. “Whether they’re physically here or physically somewhere else, the fact that they are registered, and they want to exercise their right to vote, means we should do our best to minimize any kind of barrier.”
The VoteMobile trailer is just one tool, which might not be as effective or attainable elsewhere. But that commitment to minimizing barriers can certainly be adopted by any county. There are steps that can be taken to start addressing the underlying issues – including voting inequality – that disasters often exacerbate. And we can create systems and demand policies that support residents in the recovery process.
That can all start with your vote.
Newsletter news
  • This newsletter will be off next week due to… well, you know by now. I’ll be back in your inboxes November 12.
  • I’m also very excited to announce that you can now donate to support my reporting and help keep this newsletter free with this fancy new button!
As always…
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Here’s a little something spooky for reading to the end.
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