Long lines of people wrap around the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on Monday, October 26, 2020 for one of the last days of early voting. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Hurricane Zeta ripped through the New Orleans area just days before the Nov. 3 presidential election, and officials on Thursday raced to survey the damage to polling places, warehouses full of voting machines and the offices of local election officials. 

Zeta, a Category 2 hurricane when it made landfall Wednesday afternoon, slammed into New Orleans and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.

Officials said Entergy would work to restore power first to polling precincts to get them up and running by Tuesday, when voters are expected to turn out in strong numbers to vote for president, Congressional races, New Orleans district attorney and a host constitutional amendments and propositions. 

State and local officials in the New Orleans area said they were still trying to figure out which polling locations might have to be moved on election day – and were crafting plans for how to best inform voters. 

“We’re hoping to minimize the number of voters who cannot vote at their normal location,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a morning press briefing before touring storm-ravaged southeast Louisiana. He added polling places and local elections offices will be “priority locations” for restoring power.

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Arthur Morrell, clerk of court for Orleans Parish, said Thursday afternoon it was still too early to say how many of the parish's 122 polling places would be have to relocated. But he officials were scoping out the Smoothie King Center as a possible mega-precinct if needed, much like it was during the record-setting early voting period. 

"I have my people out there right now" visiting polling places, Morrell said. He added the decision on relocating polling places needs to be made by Sunday, when the voting machines are sent from warehouses to the polling locations. 

The governor advised voters to pay attention to information put out by the Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and to local clerks of court and registrars of voters.

Ardoin said he is working with local officials to assess the damage to the offices where registrars and clerks administer elections, as well as to warehouses that store voting machines and polling locations.

“Power outages remain the most widespread challenge and we are working with Entergy and other utility companies to assess and restore power to our election infrastructure,” Ardoin said in a statement. “We will have a more thorough grasp of the damage to individual polling places over the next 24-48 hours and we will coordinate with clerks of court and local governing authorities if any emergency polling place relocations are necessary."

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Tyler Brey, a spokesman for Ardoin, said if polling places are moved, the state and local officials will send out information about where voters should go on election day if they haven’t cast their ballot early or by mail already. Early voting ended Tuesday. If a polling place is relocated, a poll worker will also be stationed at the old site to direct voters to the new location. Brey added it would likely be too early to say what the scope of the damage is until at least Friday. 

Clerks of court, registrars of voters and boards of election supervisors are also tasked with counting mail ballots on election day. And this year, the number of mail ballots has surged dramatically, increasing by 132% compared to the 2016 election. 

Jon Gegenheimer, the clerk of court for Jefferson Parish, said in an interview his office was still surveying the damage Thursday afternoon and should know more by the end of the day or Friday. The parish has around 200 polling locations spanning around 260 precincts.

“We’re assessing each of the polling places and Entergy has made the priority for restoring power all of the areas with polling locations,” Gegenheimer said.

Calcasieu Parish has already consolidated dozens of its polling places into mega-precincts at the Lake Charles Civic Center, Burton Coliseum and others after hurricanes Laura and Delta damaged or destroyed the original locations, according to Ardoin’s office.

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But Gegenheimer said Jefferson Parish will likely not be required to take a similar approach after Zeta.

“It appears that will not be done here,” Gegenheimer said. “We’re going to try to maintain the precincts where they are now.”

Gegenheimer added his offices have backup generators and that his electronic filing system remained operational.

Louisiana has already seen record turnout in the early voting period and by voters casting their ballots by mail. Nearly 1 million voters have already cast a ballot in the presidential election in Louisiana, an 81% increase over the early voting period in the 2016 presidential election.

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