Florida elections official who allowed Hurricane Michael survivors to vote by email stands by decision

Bay County's Mark Anderson defended his use of fax and email ballots for people displaced by the hurricane and explained how his staff managed to pull off an election weeks after a storm hit.
Published Dec. 5, 2018|Updated Dec. 5, 2018

Sen. Bill Nelson sued him and even some Republicans criticized him but Bay County's election chief stands by a decision to let voters cast ballots by email and fax after Hurricane Michael carpet bombed the Panhandle and displaced thousands of residents.

"I did what was needed for the voters at the time, with security in mind, with fraud protection in mind," Mark Anderson, the supervisor of elections in Bay County, said at Wednesday's mid-winter gathering of Florida election officials in Sarasota. "I took care of my voters."

Emotional, determined and, at times, defiant, Anderson recounted for his colleagues how his county pulled off an election weeks after the Category 4 storm ripped apart northwest Florida. Michael made landfall in Bay County's Mexico Beach just 15 days before early voting began as the strongest storm to ever reach the Panhandle and one of the fiercest to hit the United States on record.

The county election office lost a section of its roof and the building flooded. Anderson and others lived there for two days without working bathrooms. Political signs were used to push water out of the building. Critical servers were taken apart, dried by sunshine and cleaned with toothbrushes while they waited for rescue crews to reach them.

Anderson compared the isolation and conditions to Gilligan's Island. They finally emerged only to find total devastation around them. The main thoroughfare, Highway 98, was covered in downed trees, powerlines and the remnants of the businesses that once lined the street.

Destruction aside, how could they manage an election? Polling locations were destroyed. Cell phone service was spotty. The postal service was down. One employee of 37 years lost her home yet still showed up to help, Anderson recalled, choking back tears.

It was under these conditions that Anderson said he made choices that ran afoul of state laws for administering elections, like setting up alternative polling locations in churches, a no-no, and why he defied a direct order from the state not to allow votes by email or fax.

Anderson previously told the Times/Herald that 11 ballots were accepted by email and 147 ballots were domestically faxed in.

"What would someone else do? The same cotton pickin' thing I did," Anderson said. "Find a way."

Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order 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.

Calhoun County, for example, opened a polling location in a tent set up by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the county's supervisor Sharon Chason said Wednesday. Anderson opened what he called "mega voting sites" throughout the county that where voters could cast a ballot Oct. 27 through Nov. 6 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

But Scott's order 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.

During a highly contentious recount, where every counties' voting methods fell under scrutiny, Anderson's action drew national media attention. Nelson, trailing Scott in a race for Senate, sued Bay County to disqualify those votes.

The lawsuit remains open, according to county court records, but no action has been taken since Nov. 16.

Anderson antagonized the national media as overtly critical of a county amid hardship. He also bemoaned "political pressures" that forced him to open up another voting site for a "specific community" where 100 people showed up to vote.

In the days leading up to the election, the state NAACP raised concerns that none of the Bay County voting sites were a reasonable distance from the black community there.

The supervisors meet for three days in Sarasota to discuss the historic recount and other trials of the recently held elections. Speaking on the last day, Anderson received a loud ovation from his colleagues for pulling off an election.

Turnout in Bay County was 53 percent, up from the last mid-term election.

"Bay County voters, they're tough, they're patriotic and they're proud and loud," Anderson said.

From this ordeal, Anderson said the state should learn that one day of voting is not enough and more should be done to encourage early voting and vote-by-mail. In the days after Michael hit, Anderson and his staff pushed hard for people to vote before Election Day. If they all showed up the same day, his office would have been overwhelmed.

The state should also strongly consider election centers — large, regional voting sites where anyone in the county can vote  — instead of smaller, precinct-level polling locations.

"We just have to convince others that it's safe and secure," Anderson said. "I know it worked in a devastation area, I'm pretty darn confident I can do it again. Just let me."

Times/Herald Staff Writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.