Election changes urged in storm-ravaged areas of Florida

Polling places, poll workers may not be available, county SOE says

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux, who serves as president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, wants the state to consider changes for the general election -- from emailed vote-by-mail ballots to combining precincts -- to help people directly affected by Hurricane Michael.

Noting polling places may not be available and that some poll workers might not have returned to their homes, Lux in an email Sunday to Secretary of State Ken Detzner urged the creation of “mega-precincts” for election day.

Detzner, the state’s chief elections official, advised Lux he wanted to hear firsthand from county supervisors of election before making decisions. Detzner made a similar comment to the media on Monday.

In a separate email, Lux noted that Madison County Supervisor of Elections Tommy Hardee has delivered gas and other supplies to election officials in Calhoun and Liberty counties, which are running on generators. He also noted that the supervisor’s office in Gulf County “miraculously, survived basically unscathed,” while in Bay County, which has been offline, the voting equipment “is okay and their early voting equipment and supplies are still ready to deploy.”

“It sounds as if most of the hardest-hit counties fared pretty well considering the utter devastation around them,” Lux wrote. “Many are without power and are likely to remain so for weeks to come; but most have generators filling that gap. Connectivity continues to be the biggest problem.”

Traffic was backed up for more than 3 miles with relief workers, volunteers or displaced residents, a rarity in downtown Blountstown, the county seat for Calhoun County. 

Elections Supervisor Sharon Chason said mail ballots pose a particular problem.

“There’s no way a postal carrier can get into probably half of -- more than half of -- the county,” Chason said.

Among his suggestions, Lux said the state should consider emailed vote-by-mail ballots for non-military evacuees and deployed power workers. For people who have lost forms of identification, Lux would like voters to get regular ballots rather than provisional ballots if provisional ballot materials are in short supply in impacted counties.

Also, Lux asked if there is a way the counties that have taken in nursing-home residents can deliver the correct ballots in local facilities.

Nine of the counties hardest hit by Hurricane Michael have played a significant role in the outcome of past statewide elections. 

Donald Trump got nearly 79,000 votes, equating to 69 percent of his margin of victory. Rick Scott won in 2014 by just over 64,000 votes. The nine counties accounted for 70 percent of his margin of victory.

Both major parties have something to worry about,

“We’ve got a whole set of people who are relocating,” said Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. “And my guess is voting isn’t at the top of their agenda right now.”

Gillum should expect 15,000 more votes from heavily damaged Gadsden, if people turn out.

Florida statute 101.733 allows the governor to suspend or delay an election for up to 10 days, but supervisors in the hardest areas said that won’t be necessary.

“Folks that involved, the counties, the supervisors, are working 24/7 to try to make sure they can meet the demands of the election and the voters in their counties,” said Rob Labasky with the Florida State Association of Elections Supervisors.

Early voting statewide runs from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3, though county supervisors can add some extra days. 

Under Florida law, any registered voter can vote anywhere in the state during early voting or on election day. That includes displaced residents or relief workers away from home. 

Simply change your address at any polling place in the county where you have relocated.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 453,000 people statewide had cast vote-by-mail ballots for the election, including 166,409 ballots cast by Democrats and 205,297 by Republicans. Hard-hit Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties haven’t updated their vote-by-mail numbers since before Michael came ashore.

The deadline to register to vote in the November election was Oct. 9 -- the day before Michael made landfall in Mexico Beach and tore through parts of Northwest Florida.

Detzner has granted a partial extension of the voter-registration deadline in counties where elections offices were closed Oct. 9. Those counties will be able to accept paper voter-registration applications on the day they reopen. Detzner did not extend an Oct. 9 deadline for registering to vote online.