There’s no “blue wave” of Democrat voters to be found in Florida so far, with Republicans outpacing Democrats in returning mail ballots for the upcoming November 6th midterm elections, but the aftermath of Hurricane Michael may provide a boost to Florida Democrats’ hopes for winning their first statewide elections in years.
As the Tampa Bay Times reported, nearly 2.6 million Floridians have requested mail ballots, which were previously referred to as “absentee ballots,” but Florida does not require any specific reason if a voter wishes to vote by mail before Election Day.
As of yesterday’s count, 554,000 of those mail ballots have been returned statewide, with Republicans submitting 247,530 ballots and Democrats returning 207,171.
Not only have Republican voters sent in more overall mail ballots, they have also sent in a higher percentage of the ballots than their overall percentage of the state’s voters. Republicans are currently 35 percent of the Florida electorate, but 45 percent of the mail ballots have been from Republicans. In comparison, Democrats have just kept even — their 37 percent of the mail ballots matches their 37 percent share of the state’s voters.
If this trend continues, Democrats will need to beat Republican turnout in early voting and Election Day in order to win any of the statewide races.
On the ballot this year: two highly competitive races between Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) challenging Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) for Florida’s Senate seat and Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) to be the state’s next governor, plus battles for Attorney General, Agriculture Commissioner, CFO, and several constitutional amendments that, if passed, could have far-reaching consequences in future elections.
One potential obstacle for Republicans: the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
The storm’s devastation destroyed homes and businesses, wiped out power and telephone lines, and blocked roads in large areas of the Florida Panhandle, a Republican stronghold. Countless Floridians do not yet know when they may be able to live in their homes again, if ever, and electricity, mail, internet, cable, and landline and cell phone service has been spotty if not altogether unavailable.
Schools, churches, and other buildings that were expected to be used as voting precincts are among the buildings damaged or destroyed by Michael’s wrath, leaving elections supervisors scrambling to find new locations with less than a month to go, and just mere days until early voting starts on October 27th.
According to Politico’s Marc Caputo, the state is considering several measures to alleviate the disruption by the hurricane:
Okaloosa County Elections Supervisor Paul Lux, chairman of Florida’s elections supervisors association, asked the state Sunday to consider several major alterations: “mega-precincts,” in which 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.
Under an emergency power passed in the aftermath of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, Scott does have the power to delay the state elections, but not the federal races (his Senate battle with Nelson and the Congressional races).
Also impacted by the hurricane: polling. The disruption to landline and cell phone service, plus the fact that pollsters are hesitant to bother storm-weary residents, has left polling “temporarily ground to a halt” — leaving campaigns and media in the dark about how too-close-to-call races like the Senate and gubernatorial contests are trending. Any poll that fails to adequately sample the Republican areas of the Panhandle cannot provide an accurate statewide picture.
Several of the counties impacted by the hurricane have not reported updates in their mail ballot return numbers since Michael made landfall, as The Capitolist reported:
There are nine affected counties that have not reported updates since at least last Wednesday. Most of those counties are small rural, more conservative counties. The largest is Bay County where Panama City and Mexico Beach are located. It has nearly 120,000 registered voters of which 13,575 requested a mail-in ballot. So far, that county’s election office is reporting 256 ballots submitted. In the primary election, nearly 12,000 Bay County voters requested mail-in ballots with voters returning almost 6,000.
Gulf County, which sits just east of Bay County, received 1505 requests for mail-in ballots. As of Tuesday morning, the county’s election supervisor reported none of the ballots have been returned.
Throughout the nine county region affected by Michael where mail-in updates haven’t been received by the Division of Elections in a week or more, nearly 30,000 vote-by-mail ballots have been sent out. As of Tuesday morning, 560 were reported to be submitted to local election offices.
Again, these are Republican areas, so any additional votes gained here are likely to help Republican candidates.
Campaigning remains tricky for candidates who do not wish to appear insensitive. Gillum has been criticized for making a show of saying he was suspending his campaign — while running online video ads with a misleading attack on DeSantis — plus an embarrassingly staged photo-op helping with hurricane cleanup.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.