After Michael’s fury, hardest-hit counties say changes in voting are needed

The state's chief elections official visited several Panhandle counties on Monday.
Building materials lay piled against the home of Robert and Beatrice Baker in Mexico Beach [Douglas R. Clifford -- Times]
Building materials lay piled against the home of Robert and Beatrice Baker in Mexico Beach [Douglas R. Clifford -- Times]
Published Oct. 16, 2018|Updated Oct. 16, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — Three weeks before Election Day, county elections officials want Gov. Rick Scott to approve changes in voting in the counties hardest hit by Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle.

With no electricity or Internet, spotty cell service, damage to polling places, and election workers coping with damaged or destroyed homes, immediate changes are needed to ensure that the election is still carried out as smoothly as possible and on time, officials say.

Tens of thousands of voters in one of Florida's strongest Republican regions have not yet returned their mail ballots. Early voting in the hardest-hit counties is set to begin one week from Saturday, on Oct. 27.

Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux, chairman of the state association of supervisors, wants Scott to issue an executive order that provides greater flexibility to counties.

"I firmly believe the governor needs to issue an order that allows for a wide range of things," Lux wrote in an email to the state Division of Elections on Sunday. "They (counties) will need the ability to open fewer sites for all voters who remain, due to a lack of polling places and staff."

Lux suggested that one solution is to allow counties to shift to an extended early voting system in which fewer bigger sites will remain open through 7 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 6.

Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux at his office in Crestview [Steve Bousquet – Times]
Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux at his office in Crestview [Steve Bousquet – Times]

In an increasingly mobile society, the idea of regional voting centers in future elections is already gaining favor in some counties.

RELATED: Vote centers: The next big thing in Florida elections?

Lux said mail ballots might need to be sent to different counties because of disruptions in mail service, and he said provisions must also be made to assist relief workers stationed far from home who want to vote, and for displaced patients of nursing homes.

The list goes on. What about voters who lost their photo ID in the storm? If polling places move, how will voters know?

County election supervisors are helping each other with offers of spare cell phones and equipment and much-needed moral support.

"Everybody's pitching in," said Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley.

Lux called Madison County Supervisor of Elections Tommy Hardee an "angel of mercy" for making repeated trips to Bay and Gulf counties to assist with conditions there.

The election supervisor with the greatest challenges is Mark Andersen in Bay County, who could not be reached. Bay County also is by far the largest affected county, with about 121,000 voters.

Colleagues say Andersen, who served 10 years as a U.S. Navy SEAL, has the skill and experience to restore order to his election system quickly.

A notice in bright yellow on Andersen's web site says: "We are working to get the office back up and operational as quickly as possible."

Despite the massive destruction, the affected counties are on schedule to complete their required logic and accuracy tests of voting equipment this week, Lux said.

The state's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, traveled to Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf and Liberty counties on Monday to witness the destruction.

"I saw first-hand the devastation Hurricane Michael brought to these areas and my heart goes out to them," Detzner said.

As of Tuesday morning, nearly 446,000 Florida voters had returned their vote-by-mail ballots to county offices, but nine Panhandle counties still hadn't updated their figures since Oct. 10, the day the storm hit.

Those counties are Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington.

In the last mid-term election in 2014, more than 121,000 people cast ballots in the nine counties, where voter turnout is usually significantly higher than the statewide average.

Except for Gadsden, all of the hardest-hit counties vote strongly Republican in statewide elections. President Donald J. Trump carried the other eight by wide margins in 2016.

The last time a hurricane disrupted an election was in 2004, after Charley struck southwest Florida shortly before a statewide primary election. Gov. Jeb Bush signed an order delaying the start of early voting and giving the hardest-hit counties more time to hire and train poll workers.

In DeSoto County, officials pitched a tent in a parking lot that served as a polling station after Charley's winds ripped the roof off the First Baptist Church of Arcadia, a major polling place.

After Andrew caused widespread destruction in south Miami-Dade County in 1992, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles ordered a one-week delay in the primary election there.

Florida voters amended the state Constitution in 1992 to give the governor the authority to delay an election for up to 10 days in an emergency.