After Michael, Florida officials relax voting rules in Panhandle

October 18, 2018 GMT

Florida officials announced several changes Thursday designed to streamline and expand the voting opportunities for residents in the 8 counties smashed by Hurricane Michael last week.

The changes are designed to let local officials expand early voting, giving residents more opportunity to find time to vote.

But Secretary of State Ken Detzner ruled that balloting by fax or e-mail would not be permitted, given the unreliable infrastructure.

The most powerful storm that ever struck the area, Michael’s Category 4 winds of more than 150 mph tore through buildings and roads in Florida’s northwest corner, leaving some 400,000 residents without power and some coastal areas accessible only by air.

Most of the damaged counties are in Florida’s Panhandle, which has traditionally provided Republican candidates important votes in a state that has seen its last several gubernatorial and presidential elections be decided by razor-thin margins.

Floridians are poised to elect a new governor next month as well as decide whether to give incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson a third six-year term or go with Gov. Rick Scott, who is term-limited out of the governor’s mansion and the GOP’s nominee to unseat Mr. Nelson.

Much of what Mr. Detzner outlined was included in an executive order Mr. Scott issued this week for Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties. Changes include allowing local supervisors of elections to begin early voting Monday, and extend it through Election Day on Nov. 6.

The executive order also extended the registration date for poll watchers until noon on Monday, allowed mail-in ballots to be forwarded to another address and provided avenues for National Guardsmen and first responders in the Panhandle on storm recovery duties to cast their ballots.

The battered Panhandle counties have roughly 220,000 registered voters, according to Florida accounts.

It was those same counties that provided roughly 50% of the margin by which Mr. Scott won re-election in 2014, and the Panhandle was also a critical zone of support for President Trump when he won Florida in the 2016 presidential election.

In the bitterly contested 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, it was the fact the Panhandle is on central time, and thus its polling stations stay open an hour later than the East Coast, that caused the networks to flip their call from Mr. Gore to Mr. Bush on election night.

Michael has roiled Florida’s electoral landscape beyond the voters in the path of the storm. Mr. Scott has suspended making campaign appearances to focus on storm recovery efforts, as has Tallahassee’s Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum who is that party’s gubernatorial candidate.

Mr. Nelson and former Republican congressman Ron DeSantis, the GOP nominee for governor, have also been active in the Panhandle since the hurricane, although Mr. Nelson announced Wednesday he was leaving the storm-tossed zone to hit the campaign trail again, drawing sharp criticism from the Scott camp.