November 6, 2018 / 10:45 PM / 8 days ago

A month later, hurricane trips up Florida Panhandle voters

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - Christy Todd said she is a regular voter in Mexico Beach, the oceanfront Florida Panhandle community nearly obliterated by Hurricane Michael less than a month ago. But she sat out Tuesday’s elections.

A sign directs voters to a new polling location where Hurricane Michael destroyed many schools and other buildings used as polling stations in the area in Parker, during the midterm elections in Florida, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

“There’s so much going on, I just couldn’t make time for it,” Todd, 40, said, donning a dust mask as she made her way into the remains of the small house she had rented for the past five years.

Todd, who sells apparel on eBay, said she probably would have voted Republican in Tuesday’s elections, which will decide if U.S. President Donald Trump’s party maintains control in both houses of Congress.

But Todd said she did not know where to vote and had no time to find out. Having lost most of her roof in the hurricane, she has been living out of her car and sleeping at the homes of relatives since the storm struck.

She is not alone. Hurricane Michael, the most powerful storm to strike Florida in at least 80 years, left thousands of people homeless in the Panhandle, a conservative-leaning region considered vital to the Republican Party’s fortunes in the state this year.

In two close contests regarded as national political bellwethers, Republican Governor Rick Scott was attempting to unseat incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, faced Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis in the gubernatorial race.

BOOSTING TURNOUT

State and local Republican leaders have gone to great lengths to offset the hurricane’s potential impact on turnout, especially in hard-hit Gulf County and Bay County, which includes Mexico Beach.

Officials opened eight large voting centers in those two counties in place of dozens of precinct-by-precinct local polling places that were damaged or destroyed in the storm.

In addition, early voting was extended through Monday in Bay County, the only jurisdiction in Florida where voters could cast ballots on the eve of the election.

To overcome chronic internet and telephone outages caused by the storm, Republican officials posted thousands of signs around Bay County to alert voters to changes in voting locations and hours, said James Waterstradt, the party’s county chairman.

Their efforts appeared to have paid off. Voter turnout in Bay County was running about 52 percent, higher than it was for the last mid-term election in 2014, Waterstradt said on Tuesday night. Polling stations were kept open for lines of voters who had arrived before the scheduled 7 p.m. closing time, he said.

In neighboring Gulf County, turnout reached 64 percent, which Republican state committeeman David Ashbrook said was lower than average for a mid-term election there but “higher than I expected it to be.”

On the eve of the election, he had expressed concern about transportation “We have a lot of people in outlying areas whose cars have been crushed, who are homeless,” he had said.

“I’M SLEEP DEPRIVED”Catina Hill, a registered Republican who said she votes in every election, cast her ballot despite storm-related hardships, including scarcities in food, water and electricity.

“I came this close to not voting today,” Hill, a 43-year-old landlady, said as she left a polling site at the United Methodist Church in her hometown of Parker. “Everything is piling up.”

Hill said she voted for Scott in the Senate race but could not recall which candidate she chose for governor.

“The power’s constantly flickering, and my kids are scared. I’m sleep-deprived,” Hill said, lamenting she was unable to thoroughly review the candidates and issues before voting.

Slideshow (8 Images)

Some people took solace in thinking the disaster could dampen turnout among Democrats, too.

“I don’t think this storm said, ‘Oh we’re going to tear up Republicans’ houses and not Democrats,’” said Sissy Karr, 44, another loyal Republican who owns 14 rental properties around Panama City and said she, too, lacked the time to vote.

“It didn’t matter if you were a poor person renting a manufactured home or a wealthy doctor with a big home at Bay Point. The storm tore your stuff up.”

Reporting by Terray Sylvester; Writing by Bill Tarrant and Steve Gorman; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Toni Reinhold

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