If Hurricane Matthew is as devastating to Florida as forecasters have predicted, it could be a human tragedy costing people their lives, health, homes, and personal property. Beyond that initial tragedy, though, the storm also may have dire electoral implications, potentially affecting the outcome of the 2016 presidential election and landing emergency election litigation from Florida once again before the (now-deadlocked) United States Supreme Court. Florida is seen as a state key to Donald Trump’s chances of victory over Hillary Clinton for the presidency, and this storm could have major impacts on voter registration and voting. Voter registration in Florida closes in just five days. According to Professor Dan Smith of the University of Florida, in the last five days of registration in 2012, 50,000 Florida voters signed up to vote. Many who might normally sign up to vote at the last minute are now following Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s order to flee the affected areas of the state, and they are not likely to register to vote on their way out or drop ballots in closed post offices or soon-to-be-flooded post office boxes. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has already called for voter registration deadlines to be extended, but the Republican governor has already turned down that request.
Some Floridians who have already registered and wish to cast an early ballot may find that they cannot get home to vote or get an absentee ballot, or perhaps that their ballot has washed away in the storm. Requests to deal with these problems could put a great burden on Florida election administrators, particularly if the storm displaces people for a period that lasts through Election Day. The good news here is that we are still four weeks out from Election Day and that Florida is a state with early voting, and so there is a chance to get some post-storm plans in place to help people as much as possible.
We can also learn much of what post-storm voting could look like from the response to Superstorm Sandy, which hit the Eastern Seaboard in 2012, and caused great damage in New York and New Jersey just before Election Day. According to a study by Professor Robert M. Stein of Rice University, Sandy had a number of negative effects on the election in the impacted regions. Turnout went down. Polling places were consolidated. Jurisdictions differed in how they treated displaced voters. There was confusion and chaos in some affected areas.
Perhaps most disturbingly, some New Jersey jurisdictions relaxed rules for voting on the fly, including allowing voting by fax and by email. These measures violated New Jersey law, and a Rutgers study found that they may even have led to some fraudulent voting.