One option for Gov. Rick Scott: Use his emergency power to delay state elections.
As tens of thousands of voters in Florida’s storm-tossed Panhandle try to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Michael, their communities are grappling with yet another problem — an election season thrown into disarray.
With power out in many areas and phone lines down, it’s still not clear how many voters across the state have been affected. Nor is it clear which voter precincts were damaged, or what exactly the state should do to make voting easier for survivors and the displaced.
Then there are the more crass political considerations. The state’s Senate and gubernatorial races are virtually tied at the moment — and 8 of the 11 counties without power, an area affecting 135,000 customers, are Republican-performing counties.
One option available to GOP Gov. Rick Scott, who’s running to topple Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, is to delay the general election in state races — but not his federal race — under an emergency power Floridians granted governors in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
It’s an unlikely scenario, but it’s one that Florida Democrats discussed Monday and Tuesday. They also corresponded with the state’s elections division in support of more voting opportunities for hurricane survivors. And they privately war-gamed how to reach voters and debated what to do if the state decides to place any super-voting precincts in GOP-heavy areas, but not Democratic ones.
Between House races, the governor’s race and his own Senate contest, Scott’s ultimate decision could have far-reaching implications in a state with a history of razor-thin elections margins and controversies — and it could even affect the balance of power in Washington.
Polling in the nationally watched Senate and gubernatorial races in the country’s largest swing state has temporarily ground to a halt for political parties, campaigns and independent groups trying to get a read on what voters think. Some pollsters are holding off making calls even as phone service returns because it’s unseemly to call homeowners who are only interested in talking to insurance adjusters about home damage.
“Even if the phone lines are up, people are still struggling, it’s the heat of recovery. You don’t want to be the one calling and asking folks to take a political survey,” said University of North Florida political science professor and pollster Michael Binder. UNF is polling Florida statewide late this week but will make calls to the still-reeling Panama City and Tallahassee media markets last so as to give survivors more time to process their emotions and handle their affairs.
“Some folks might cuss us out,” he said, echoing what other pollster said on record and on background.
The predicament for pollsters is equally acute for candidates and political groups. After a hurricane, candidates typically take great pains to make sure they don’t look like political opportunists. Yet they still need to — and do — campaign.
Scott’s office won’t say what his plans are in regards to delaying the general election, but he’s expected to issue an emergency order as early as Wednesday morning concerning early and absentee-ballot voting at the request of elections supervisors in Florida’s hardest-hit counties.
Complicating matters, the hurricane struck just as vote-by-mail absentee voting got under way. So far, about 453,000 people statewide had already voted by Tuesday morning, only 4,100 of which were in the 11 affected counties. More issues surfaced: Did any ballots get lost in the mail? When will mail service resume?
Okaloosa County Elections Supervisor Paul Lux, chair of Florida’s elections supervisors’ association, asked the state Sunday to consider several major alterations: “mega-precincts” where any county voter can drop off a ballot because precincts have been destroyed; a process to allow people without ID to cast regular ballots if provisional ballots are in short supply; aid to help evacuated nursing home residents vote by absentee ballot; ideas to figure out how to deliver absentee ballots from one county to the next if mail service is down; consideration of whether to allow overseas voters to cast absentee ballots via email.
Scott is expected to issue an emergency order tomorrow in response to Lux’s recommendations.
In hard-hit Gulf County, Elections Supervisor John Hanlon didn’t wait for Scott and announced Tuesday that he would keep two mega-precincts open through Election Day when in-person early voting starts Oct. 27. He also said he would give displaced voters in other counties the option of faxing in signed ballots.
Republican Party and Democratic Party officials did not want to comment for this story, saying the focus of the news should be on storm recovery. But one Republican familiar with the affected counties said the party is bracing for a net loss of 20,000 votes that Scott or Republican Ron DeSantis in the race for governor would otherwise receive. Democrats aren’t so sure. Both are waiting to see what Scott does.
As for the pause in polling, a Republican consultant working for a statewide campaign groused that “we’re flying blind right when we need to see more.”
Quinnipiac University indicated it delayed its regular polling of the senate and gubernatorial races due to the hurricane.
“The storm has had its effects on our polling schedule,” Qunnipiac’s assistant polling director, Peter A. Brown said. “It’s obviously difficult to get completed interviews with likely voters when they are trying to get their lives back to normal.”
Campaigns on both sides of the political divide paused polling as well but are resuming. Robo-polling — a less expensive alternative to live-call polling — has been especially affected because it requires landline telephones, which are often slower to restore service than cellphones. Robo-polls make up the bulk of publicly released polls in Florida this year, the last of which were completed at the end of September and released in the first week of October, just before the storm.
Lee Miringoff, political science director and pollster for Marist College, said small numbers matter in polling, so it would be a bad idea to survey the state without portions of the Panhandle being available, even though it’s now clear that the damaged area is relatively small when compared to the rest of the state.
“Maybe the area affected is only a percent or less. But in close races like Florida, we wouldn’t poll if we missed a piece like this,” Miringoff said. He also said they would wait to poll, and recalled taking a pause in polling the New York City mayoral race after 9/11 to make sure not to bother people in the shell-shocked city. When pollsters resumed surveying, they didn’t rush in.
“We waited to see if there was an adverse reaction,” he said. “Common sense needs to apply.”
While some pollsters might have been conducting surveys right up until the hurricane made landfall, many avoided polling because they considered it bad form. Before landfall last Wednesday, the hurricane menaced three of the state’s 10 major media markets and led to a pre-landfall state of emergency declaration in two others.
Days after the storm hit, it became clear that its damage was largely limited to one media market, Panama City, and affected Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties. The counties of Gadsden, Leon and Wakulla in the Tallahassee media market were also affected, but not as badly.
Together, the 11 affected counties have 465,000 active registered voters of the state’s 13 million. In 2016, they voted overall for President Trump over Hillary Clinton by 9 percentage points, or by 32,181 votes. Trump’s winning margin statewide: 112,911.
“We have elections in Florida that are decided by 100,000 votes, so everything matters and nothing matters in the end,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant from Tallahassee.
Just two of the 11 counties voted for Clinton: Leon, and Gadsden County — a heavily African-American county that was the only one of 67 to vote against President Reagan in his 1984 landslide reelection.
Leon County is home to Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who got a boost in national television coverage before and after the hurricane.
But Gillum’s exposure paled in comparison to Scott.
Republican consultant Brett Doster said that he believes the constant storm coverage commanded by the governor will be a net benefit to him as well as DeSantis because it could boost Republican turnout elsewhere and be persuasive for independents.
So when the next polls come out after the storm, Republicans expect Scott to be marginally up, instead of down, against Nelson in the Senate race.
“The best of any politics is good governance,” Doster said. “Storm politics are part of the fabric of campaigning in Florida. And those who play it well win.”