As Hurricane Approaches Florida, Governor Refuses Clinton's Request to Extend Voter Registration

by | October 7, 2016

By Patricia Mazzei and Kristen M. Clark

Florida rejected a request Thursday from Hillary Clinton's campaign chief to extend the state's voter-registration deadline due to Hurricane Matthew.

"I'm not going to extend it," Gov. Rick Scott told reporters in Tallahassee. "Everybody has had a lot of time to register. On top of that, we have lots of opportunities to vote: early voting, absentee voting, Election Day. So I don't intend to make any changes."

Clinton's team had asked for more days earlier, after Democratic-leaning political groups said they had to cancel planned registration drives in the last frenzied days ahead of the deadline because of the storm. Tuesday is the last day for new voters to sign up ahead of the Nov. 8 presidential election.

"The one thing that we are hoping and expecting is that officials in Florida will adapt deadlines to account for the storm," campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters. "Our hope would be that a little bit more time would be given for people that were expecting to get registered before the election."

Elections supervisors typically see a surge in voter interest immediately before the registration closes. About 50,000 people registered during the final five days in 2012, according to University of Florida professor Daniel A. Smith, who studies Florida voting trends.

"Right at the end, people feel the urgency to do something," said Gihan Perera, head of Florida New Majority, which called off its sign-up events at schools, churches and football games in South Florida and the Jacksonville area.

Cancellations began Wednesday: When President Barack Obama called into Miami's 99 Jamz radio station, host Felisha Monet told him they'd called off a registration drive.

Engage Miami Civic Fund had intended to register students at Florida International University and Miami Dade College, as well as at several high schools, on Thursday and Friday. The group is trying to reschedule for Monday and Tuesday but acknowledged that the busy weekend events will be lost.

"This was one of our most scheduled weeks and weekends of the fall for voter registration," executive director Rob Biskupic-Knight said in an email to the Miami Herald.

In Orlando, NCLR, the National Council of La Raza, suspended canvassing Thursday, according to Jared Nordlund, the group's Florida senior strategist for civic engagement.

Under the existing statute, voter applications postmarked by Tuesday will still be accepted.

The state seemed unlikely all along to take action before Matthew cleared Florida and administrators could assess the extent of the damage. State offices were closed Thursday and Friday.

"For any political party to ask this in the middle of a storm is political," said Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Scott, who chairs a pro-Trump super PAC. "Our No. 1 focus is protecting life. There'll be another day for politics."

Late Thursday, about 90 minutes after the governor's final press briefing, Scott's office revealed he'd taken calls earlier in the day about Matthew with two top Trump supporters: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The late schedule revision meant the governor avoided questions from reporters about the conversations.

Earlier in the day, South Carolina's Republican governor, Nikki Haley, extended her state's registration deadline. It was originally Saturday; South Carolina will now accept applications online and by email until Sunday and by mail until Tuesday.

Florida Democrats have privately said they haven't met their registration goals, though they have outpaced Republicans in terms of signing up new voters (as opposed to getting voters to switch to the party).

Thursday on Twitter, University of California Irvine law professor Richard Hasen laid out a possible nightmare electoral scenario following the storm, in which Democrats sue to extend the registration deadline, displaced residents are unable to vote by mail and the Florida election falls under so much scrutiny it ends up in a deadlocked 4-4 U.S. Supreme Court.

The bottom line, he speculated: "a hurricane in FL whose votes could be decisive for president is one of the worst election administration nightmares."

The storm, arriving 33 days before an election, posed a tricky set of challenges for all candidates on the ballot, but especially for Clinton and Donald Trump, who are fiercely contesting Florida, the nation's largest battleground state.

"I urge everyone to follow emergency instructions and evacuate if you're told to," Clinton posted on Twitter. "Stay safe Florida."

Hurricane #Matthew is a major storm. I urge everyone to follow emergency instructions and evacuate if you're told to. Stay safe Florida. -H https://t.co/zYgTH1oMbc

--Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 6, 2016

Trump, who had tweeted Wednesday night that he hoped the hurricane would "dissipate," issued a statement Thursday also imploring Florida, Georgia and South and North Carolina residents to heed evacuation warnings. He also sent "personal condolences to those families in Haiti who lost loved ones as this storm tore through their island."

Praying for everyone in Florida. Hoping the hurricane dissipates, but in any event, please be careful.

--Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 6, 2016

Clinton came under political fire after Politico reported Wednesday that her campaign bought $63,000 in ads on the Weather Channel, which gets a ratings boost during natural disasters.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who managed the state through several hurricanes, wrote late Wednesday on Twitter: "I encourage both presidential campaigns to be sensitive to all affected by Hurricane #Matthew in the coming days."

I encourage both presidential campaigns to be sensitive to all affected by Hurricane #Matthew in the coming days. https://t.co/bmM99VlUqm

--Jeb Bush (@JebBush) October 6, 2016

"Couldn't let this crisis go to waste?" Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted Thursday. "Shameful @HillaryClinton's campaign even considered exploiting Hurricane Matthew for political gain."

Couldn't let this crisis go to waste? Shameful @HillaryClinton's campaign even considered exploiting Hurricane Matthew for political gain

--Reince Priebus (@Reince) October 6, 2016

On Thursday, the Clinton team said it asked the Weather Channel to delay airing the spots. Her campaign said it had bought the ads as part of a larger, national buy, and "less than 1 percent" of it involved the Weather Channel.

"Our first priority on Hurricane Matthew is that people are safe," Mook said. "We don't think that the voters of Florida need this election to get mixed up with their efforts to get information on this storm."

Hurricane Matthew forced the postponement of two big-name campaign events that had been planned for Wednesday: a Clinton rally with Obama in Miami Gardens, and a fundraiser for Donald Trump with Ivanka Trump at Trump National Doral golf resort.

A big-dollar fundraiser for Clinton -- featuring former President Bill Clinton -- at the Coral Gables home of Republican Mike Fernandez had been scheduled for Saturday but was also pushed back.

"Everyone is waiting for the storm to see what's going to happen," said Chris Korge, a prominent Democratic donor.

Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report. Clark reported from Tallahassee.

(c)2016 Miami Herald