As counties recount ballots in three statewide races and lawyers battle over the complex vote tallying in court, the top elections official in Bay County said he allowed some displaced voters to cast ballots by email or fax after Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle, even though there is no provision for it in state law.
Bay County Supervisor of Elections Mark Andersen said Monday that 11 ballots were accepted by email and 147 ballots were domestically faxed in, though state statute does not allow emailed ballots and faxing in ballots is only permitted for military and voters overseas.
But Andersen defended his decision to accept those ballots by email and fax vigorously, noting the mass devastation that rocked the coastal county one month ago.
"You did not go through what we went through," he said, describing areas that were shut off by law enforcement and people barred from returning to their homes. "If some are unhappy we did so well up here, I don't know what to tell them. We sure had an opportunity to not do well, I can tell you that much."
Andersen said that all of those ballots were verified by signature and that voters were required to sign an oath. "If I can validate it with a signature, the ballot is there, how is that different than a ballot that comes in through the post office?"
"When devastation happens, leaders rise to the top and make decisions," he added. "I will not change my mind on this, not for these voters."
Andersen had said earlier Monday that about 150 ballots had been accepted by email, and he also told local television news station WJHG/WECP, which first reported the ballots returned by email Friday, that 147 displaced voters had sent ballots to his office that way.
"Is fax an email or is that an electronic transmission device? Well, electronic transmission, that's email," he said. "I knew some of them had been returned via fax … but I've had arguments with some people that electronic communication is all email so I figured I'd throw them all together."
After recounts were declared for three statewide races over the weekend — including U.S. Senate, governor and commissioner of agriculture — how votes are being counted across the state has come under extreme scrutiny.
The second round of unofficial returns are due Thursday at 3 p.m.
"Nobody would even be visiting anyone if the race wasn't this close," Andersen added. "It's the nature of the beast."
Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order filed Oct. 18 that allowed elections supervisors in eight hurricane-hit counties — Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Liberty and Washington — to extend early voting days and designate more early voting locations, among other measures meant to lessen the storm's impact on voting.
But it did not allow for votes to be returned by email or fax.
"Voting by fax or email is not an option under the Executive Order," the Florida Department of State stated in a news release that accompanied Scott's order. "In the hardest hit areas, communication via phone, fax and email remains challenging and would be an unreliable method for returning ballots. Additionally, past attempts by other states to allow voters impacted by natural disasters to fax or email ballots have been rife with issues."
But Andersen contended that when the order was written, "no one knew the amount [of damage]" that would still linger weeks after the storm.
"That's why the decision was made to move in that direction," he said. "You need to put yourself in the hurricane category and condition where we have food, water and basic shelter because that's still all we have basically in Bay County."
He said he had informed the Department of State about halfway through mega-voting that he intended to accept some ballots submitted by email.
In a statement, department spokeswoman Sarah Revell declined to comment specifically on Andersen's claim he had informed the state he would be taking ballots by email.
"The Florida Department of State has received reports that the Bay County Supervisor of Elections allowed some voters to return their ballots via email and fax," she wrote. "Supervisors of elections are independently elected constitutional officers and it is each supervisors' responsibility to adhere to the law at all times."
"We did what we could. I'm sure I'm not the only county," Andersen said, though he declined to name any others. "I know there were a lot of displaced voters."
Franklin County Supervisor of Elections Heather Riley said her office only accepted faxed or mailed ballots — 12 in all — from military personnel and overseas citizens.
Carol Rudd, supervisor of elections for Republican-leaning Washington County, said her office also did not receive emailed ballots from those displaced by the hurricane. Displaced voters had the option to request ballots be mailed to temporary addresses where they may have taken refuge from the storm. For instance, several first responders from other parts of the Panhandle who were aiding recovery efforts in Washington County had their absentee ballots mailed to her election headquarters in Chipley, she said.
Even if election officials there had gotten emailed ballots, Rudd said, they would not have accepted them. "We were going according to the order."
She added allowing email voting may not have made a significant difference to turnout in Washington County, which hit nearly 58 percent. "We had a lot of people who were displaced going without power, so I don't think a lot of them would have had access to email," Rudd said. "Our turnout was impressive, given what the Panhandle has been through."
Turnout in the affected counties was lower than the statewide average, a Miami Herald analysis shows. Roughly 57 percent of registered voters in the eight counties cast ballots, compared to 62.5 percent around Florida.
But the counties' 2018 turnout actually exceeded turnout in 2014, when it stood at 54 percent.
"You've got to do what's best for your voters in the conditions that exist," Andersen said Monday. "There's no statute that says you shall not email ballots … I did what was appropriate."
"I care less who wins. I don't care," added Andersen. "I care about the people that were able to vote, have their votes. I thought that's what everyone else did too."
There are about 225,000 voters in the affected counties, out of a statewide total of more than 13 million registered voters.
Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting. This story was updated to clarify how many voters cast ballots by email in Bay County.