State makes changes to help storm-displaced voters

- Florida eased restrictions Thursday on vote-by-mail ballots in eight counties ravaged last week by Hurricane Michael, while also giving elections supervisors more time to conduct early voting.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the state’s top election official, said the changes included in an executive order by Gov. Rick Scott were requested by local supervisors and are intended to help displaced voters in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Liberty, and Washington counties.

“With the general election less than three weeks away, this unprecedented storm has impacted the normal operations of administering an election in counties that were hit hardest,” Detzner’s office said in a news release.

The changes do not include allowing voters to cast ballots by fax or email.

“In the hardest hit areas, communication via phone, fax and email remains challenging and would be an unreliable method for returning ballots,” the release said. “Additionally, past attempts by other states to allow voters impacted by natural disasters to fax or email ballots have been rife with issues.”

The eight counties, which have been a solid voting bloc for Republicans in state races, included 223,175 registered voters as of the August primaries. Roughly 43 percent of the voters were registered as Republicans, while 40 percent were Democrats and 17 percent were independents or registered with third parties.

More than a week after the Oct. 10 landfall of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, the eight counties continue to grapple with problems such as power outages.

As of Thursday morning, for example, power was still out to 97 percent of Calhoun County and 81 percent of Jackson County, according to the state Division of Emergency Management. Similarly, power was out to 66 percent of Liberty County, while Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties were above 50 percent without power.

As part of Scott’s executive order, voters in the eight counties will be able to request --- through telephone calls or in writing --- for  vote-by-mail ballots to be mailed to addresses that don’t match the voters’ addresses in the Florida Voter Registration System.

“This will help displaced voters to cast a ballot,” Detzner’s office said in the news release.

The order also will allow vote-by-mail ballots to be delivered to registered voters or their family members in the counties on election day.

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida noted that postal carriers in Calhoun County were unable to access half or more than half of the rural county, which is  between Tallahassee and Panama City.

Meanwhile, the executive order will allow the counties to continue early voting through the Nov. 6 election, a move intended to help voters whose precinct locations may have been damaged by the storm.

Early voting is mandatory statewide from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3, but county supervisors have the option to start the process Monday and add Nov. 4 to the schedule.

On Wednesday, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley noted precinct locations and early-voting sites throughout the hurricane-wracked counties have been destroyed.

“Poll workers have uncertain housing challenges there,” Earley said. “There are challenges just getting water and food there, certainly. One of the biggest problems we are encountering is communications within some of these counties. The cell phone towers are out. The internet is out. There are a lot of communications issues that we are trying to overcome.”

Scott’s executive order also directed Detzner to coordinate with local supervisors to ensure members of the Florida National Guard, first responders, law-enforcement officers, utility workers and volunteers involved in the recovery effort are able to cast ballots.

--- News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.

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