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Florida Election Officials Working To Make Voting Possible For Panhandle Residents


The Florida Panhandle is facing a massive recovery effort in the wake of Hurricane Michael. With Election Day just about two weeks away, that effort includes figuring out how voters can get to the polls. NPR's Miles Parks visited one hard-hit county.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Mark Andersen is the supervisor of elections for Bay County, Fla. He's walking me around the second floor of his office in Panama City.

MARK ANDERSEN: From that wall right there all the way over - you see all the wood there?

PARKS: Uh-huh.

ANDERSEN: That's all just got put on.

PARKS: Anderson was in the building two weeks ago when the roof ripped off.

ANDERSEN: It was literally shaking from the - I guess the pressure of interior until the roof came off.

PARKS: Like, when you were sitting...

ANDERSEN: Yeah, you could feel it in your ears. My ears were popping.

PARKS: And then you just heard that vacuum sound.

ANDERSEN: And then - whoosh - and then it was gone. Five minutes - 10 minutes later, it started raining inside, a little bit here and then a lot more there.

PARKS: Andersen and his IT guy spent six hours pushing water out of the building as a fire alarm begged them to evacuate.

ANDERSEN: That's probably the one time that I really had a really deep concern that - what if the building were on fire, how would we go outside with the hurricane still blowing by?

PARKS: The worst leak was in the building's server room, which houses all the county's voter data. Andersen walks me into the room where a desktop computer is now turned on and a bunch of little lights are blinking on the equipment.

ANDERSEN: So it just rained on everything that was in here.

PARKS: And these things are still working now?

ANDERSEN: Those servers that are at the top, we took out. We blew everything out, dried everything and let it sit on the sidewalk for eight hours a day for the first two days. Then we put them back in there, crossed our fingers, and we're going.

PARKS: In fact, Andersen says none of the county's voting equipment was damaged, but there are still major disruptions for anyone here who wants to cast a ballot. Instead of going to their typical precincts, voters will have to show up at 5 mega-polling centers for in-person voting. Governor Rick Scott issued an executive order last week that allowed voting supervisors in Florida's hardest hit counties to adjust on the fly. There will be ways for voters to vote. But it will be harder and at this point maybe not so important. Robert Montjoy is a retired professor at the University of New Orleans. He studied the elections process there after Hurricane Katrina.

ROBERT MONTJOY: Until casting your ballot becomes a higher priority than cleaning out the basement, visiting somebody in the hospital or all the other demands, I mean, you can certainly expect a lower turnout.

PARKS: In a lot of places, that lower turnout maybe wouldn't matter on a national level. But Florida isn't one of those places. This year's election features a governor's race which will decide who oversees redistricting in the state and a U.S. Senate race that will play a crucial role in deciding which party has control.

SUSAN MACMANUS: Florida, once again, looks like it's headed towards a 1 percent margin of victory election in both the governor's race and the U.S. Senate race.

PARKS: Susan MacManus is a politics professor at the University of South Florida.

MACMANUS: In fact, the last four elections - two governors races and two presidential - that's been the margin of error, 1 percent.

PARKS: She said the areas affected by the hurricane are traditionally some of the most solid counties in the state for Republicans. If the voters there turn out in lower numbers, it could hurt Governor Scott who is running for Senate and his fellow Republican Ron DeSantis Santos who's running for governor. Salvation Army worker Rudy Zapata thinks that's exactly what's going to happen.

RUDY ZAPATA: The way I see it, election right now is the last thing on their mind. Right now, it's like - they're basically living one day at a time.

PARKS: When we spoke outside of Panama City, Zapata had just given out his 1,400th meal of the day. Miles Parks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.

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