Hurricane Michael forces Florida to ease voting rules in hard-hit counties

Posted at 5:35 PM, Oct 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-21 17:53:28-04

State officials in Florida are scrambling to ease voting rules in the counties hardest hit by Hurricane Michael.

The Florida Department of State said in a statement that its “top priority” was ensuring “ample opportunities for Floridians impacted by Hurricane Michael, many of whom lost their homes, to be able to cast ballots while protecting the integrity of the 2018 General Election.”

The move comes amid closely watched races for US Senate and Florida governor to be decided on November 6.

“With the General Election less than three weeks away, this unprecedented storm has impacted the normal operations of administering an election in counties that were hit hardest,” the statement said.

Gov. Rick Scott, who is challenging Democratic US Sen. Bill Nelson in a race that could decide control of the US Senate, signed an executive order Thursday allowing election supervisors in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Liberty, and Washington counties to relax voting rules.

The eight counties are home to more than 200,000 voters, according to state officials. The scope of Michael’s destruction is still emerging. The storm led to at least 19 deaths.

The governor’s order authorizes officials in the affected counties to extend the early voting period to Election Day and set up additional early voting sites. Early voting normally ends the weekend before the election.

Additionally, the order allows displaced voters to request mail-in ballots to be forwarded to a different address and extends the registration date for poll watchers to October 26.

The Department of State said local election supervisors face obstacles that included damaged polling sites, extended phone service disruptions and large numbers of residents without power. There was no reported damage to voting machines or other election-related equipment.

The executive order does not allow voting by fax or email.

“In the hardest hit areas, communication via phone, fax and email remains challenging and would be an unreliable method for returning ballots,” the Department of State said. “Additionally, past attempts by other states to allow voters impacted by natural disasters to fax or email ballots have been rife with issues.”

Here is how the most affected counties are preparing for the November vote:

Bay County

With nearly 121,000 registered voters, Bay County is where Michael made landfall last week as the worst storm to ever hit the Panhandle.

With the election less than three weeks away, the office of the county elections supervisor still has no phone service.

“The supervisor of elections office is currently closed,” the office website said.

“Due to hurricane Michael, the SOE officer currently has very limited resources. We are working to get the office back up and operational as quickly as possible.”

The website said four tentative “mega-voting” sites will open from October 27 through November 6: the supervisor of elections office, Lynn Haven Elementary School cafeteria, Panama City Beach Senior Center and Parker United Methodist Church.

Calhoun County

The county has 8,700 registered voters, according to the elections supervisor’s website.

Though cell service is spotty in Calhoun and electrical outages could last months, the office of supervisor of elections is open with generator power. It has phone and internet service.

Voting sites at Altha Community Center and the Kinard Public Library will be relocated but the new locations have yet to be determined, the website said. Three “vote-by-mail” drop-off sites will be opened before the election.

Franklin County

The county has 7,768 registered voters.

The supervisor of elections website said the office is closed. Its phone is still out of service.

The Alligator Point Precinct has been moved to Chillas Hall in Lanark Village for the election.

Gadsden County

Gadsden has 29,807 registered voters.

The officer of the supervisor of elections is open.

Gulf County

There are 10,216 registered voters in the county.

The elections supervisor’s website said many voting sites have been damaged or designated as shelters.

“The elections office had surge floodwaters come to the door but thankfully no flooding in the office,” elections supervisor John Hanlon wrote in a message to voters. “The office was spared significant damage and our voting equipment and servers were undamaged. The elections office is up and running although it is currently on generator power.”

The office’s phones are down.

On October 27, the first day of early voting, the country will set up two “super” polling sites: one at the elections office, the other at the Wewahitchka Branch Library. Normal polling sites will not be open, according to Hanlon.

Jackson County

The county has 27,997 registered voters.

“While we still have not received power, we are currently holding office hours outside our office to take voted vote-by-mail ballots, vote-by-mail requests to fulfill when power is restored, and registration record updates,” the county elections supervisor’s website said.

The site said Precinct 3 at Citizen’s Lodge sustained serious damage and has been moved to the supervisor of elections office; Precinct 5 at Cypress Park has moved to Grand Ridge Community Center; Precinct 6 at County Commissioner’s Administration Building has also moved to the elections supervisor’s officer; and arrangements are being made to relocate Precinct 10 at Welcome Assembly of God Church.

Liberty County

Liberty has 4,378 registered voters.

“Due to impacts from Hurricane Michael, our office is closed until further notice,” the elections office website said.

Washington County

Washington County has 15,817 registered voters.

County election officials said they expected no storm-related problems for the election.