Bay County’s Supervisor of Elections stood alone in Florida when he allowed voters displaced by Hurricane Michael to cast ballots by email and fax.
But while no other officials took the compassionate but clearly illegal course of action, more than one questioned why the state prohibited elections officials from accepting votes electronically under the circumstances.
“My displaced voters unfortunately just had the option for sending ballots in the mail,” said John Hanlon, Gulf County Supervisor of Elections. “But I absolutely wanted to do it.”
“It” was to allow limited voting using the same verification procedures for displaced voters that Florida elections officials use now for military and overseas voters.
Hanlon, in fact, suggested making that option available to displaced voters in a draft hurricane response plan, and he lobbied the Division of Elections on the matter, but the step failed to win approval so he did not follow through.
Bay County Supervisor of Elections Mark Andersen told Florida Politics on Monday he allowed more than 140 voters to vote this way, with 10 verifying their identity through email and the rest via fax.
What’s called the UOCAVA method has been in place for years and can be used to validate military and overseas ballots as many as 10 days after an election.
But typical domestic voters must get physical ballots to elections officials by mail or by hand before polls close on the day of an election.
After Hurricane Michael this year devastated the Panhandle, an executive order by Gov. Rick Scott and a hurricane plan announced by Secretary of State Ken Detzner granted election supervisors in eight storm-struck counties significant flexibility in executing the election, including extending early voting hours and establishing mega-polling places for voters from a number of precincts.
Detzner’s plan specifically stated email and fax voting would not be allowed. And after the election, Department of State officials made clear supervisors of elections were required to enforce and adhere to the law.
The action may have gone unnoticed but for an unprecedented three statewide recounts taking place for U.S. Senate, Governor and Agriculture Commissioner.
Gadsden County elections officials in an email to Florida Politics said only typical UOCAVA voters were allowed to vote by fax, not those displaced by the storm.
Sylvia Stephens, Jackson County Supervisor of Elections, said the UOCAVA plan wasn’t offered as an option for storm-displaced voters, so she didn’t offer it up. Had a displaced voter reached out to her about voting this way, Stephens said she would have allowed it, at least if the call came on Election Day.
“You err on the side of the voter, but you also want to follow the law,” Stephens said.
The occasion never arose in Jackson County for Stephens to make a decision on allowing a displaced voter to cast a ballot by fax or email.
She did confirm county elections supervisors worked closely together to make sure National Guard members, first responders and even storm recovery volunteers outside of their home counties got to vote. But officials used a process specifically outlined in Scott’s executive order.
Those voters provided supervisors in the counties they were in with information on their home county and precinct, then their home supervisors emailed the appropriate ballot to elections offices. Officials then printed ballots, then couriered those back to the home county.
But those ballots, while sent electronically, were filled out on paper, returned physically and included similar to vote-by-mail ballots. Elections officials could take the ballot printed elsewhere and duplicate the votes onto proper ballots for local machines, but that had to be done in front of a canvassing board.
Wakulla Supervisor of Elections Buddy Wells said ultimately, no residents in his county were displaced out of the county, at least not to his knowledge.
And Calhoun County Supervisor of Elections Sharon Chason, like Hanlon, ruled out allowing fax or email ballots to come in after the executive order prohibited the practice. But she defended Andersen.
“I don’t feel he did anything wrong,” she said, “but no, we did not do that.”
Mark Earley, Leon County Supervisor of Elections, previously confirmed he had talked with Andersen about using the UOCAVA procedure with displaced voters.
Liberty County elections officials did not accept any email or fax ballots this way.
And supervisors in Franklin and Washington counties told the Tampa Bay Times no displaced voters were allowed there to vote by fax or email.
Andersen had said he believed other Panhandle supervisors has similarly used the process this way, but Florida Politics in reaching out to all counties under the Governor’s executive order and neighboring counties impacted by the storm found only Andersen followed through with accepting ballots by email and fax.
Hanlon noted, though, that Bay County largely took the brunt of the storm,
“We were hit very hard, but Mark was hit as hard if not harder, and he has a much larger voter base,” Hanlon said. “He has 120,000 voters. I have 10,000. Ultimately, it’s up to the supervisor how to look out for voters.”