By Steve Bousquet
Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order Thursday that eases voting restrictions in eight Panhandle counties where election plans have been severely disrupted by Hurricane Michael.
The storm left more than 400,000 people without power and damaged or destroyed elections offices and polling places across the region.
The counties are Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Liberty and Washington. Together, they represent about 200,000 voters, or less than 2 percent of the statewide total of more than 13 million voters.
Seven of the eight counties (all except Gadsden) are reliably Republican and all eight have a history of above-average turnouts in midterm elections.
Scott's order gives the eight counties the ability to extend early voting days and to designate more early voting locations, even though the deadline to do so has passed.
Thursday's action, while a direct result of the devastation caused by the hurricane, recalled Scott's decision six years ago to sign legislation that curtailed early voting across the state, an action that was reversed the following year.
Scott's executive order also allows counties to send mail ballots to an address different from the address of the voter requesting a ballot, and to provide mail ballots to a voter's immediate family member on Election Day without the need for a signed affidavit declaring an emergency.
The order also directs the state Division of Elections and counties to work together to ensure delivery of mail ballots to the thousands of displaced emergency workers so that they can vote.
With thousands of ballots in the mail, the storm-related disruption of daily mail service is a potential problem in the 2018 election.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service, Nikki Johnson, said in an email: "Our procedures did not change because of the storm and we are continuing to handle all ballots timely and reliably. The Postal Service delivers each and every ballot, regardless of the amount of postage, and does not return or hold ballots ... Customers with questions about whether their ballot was received should contact their elections office."
Most county elections websites have a feature that allows voters to check the status of their mail ballots, but using that option requires access to the internet.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner said no voting equipment was damaged by Hurricane Michael.
"All election-related equipment, including ballots, are secure," Detzner said.
Detzner said voting by fax or email is not an option under state law, and is not part of the executive order. Because ordinary communication remains disrupted, voting by fax or email would be "unreliable," Detzner said in a statement.
"The department is actively reviewing ways to provide more absentee ballots to those voters in the counties severely impacted by Hurricane Michael," Detzner said.
The largest county battered by the storm, and the county with the most affected voters, is Panama City's Bay County.
Supervisor of Elections Mark Andersen, appearing on WPAP-FM, said his staff is busily working to ensure an election.
"We may be in tents," Andersen told the station. "But your vote will be able to get cast and it will be counted. Bay County will be heard."
As governor, Scott signed a law in 2011, HB 1355, that significantly cut back early voting days. That contributed to historically long lines at the polls in the 2012 election and led to allegations that Republicans were trying to suppress Democratic voter turnout.
The bill caused such a backlash that the speaker of the House at the time, Republican Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, said: "Obviously, the laws that are currently on the books may not have served the state well."
Republican political consultants and a former state GOP chairman, Jim Greer, told The Palm Beach Post in 2012 that the party sought to curtail early voting after its popularity proved crucial to Barack Obama's 2008 victory in Florida.
In 2013, Scott approved changes that expanded early voting times and locations, which remain in effect for the current election cycle.
(c)2018 Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)