What Happens When Elections Take A Rain Check?

Sep 9, 2016

Hurricane Hermine narrowly missed hitting Florida on primary election day, making landfall three days after polls had closed. But what happens when elections take a rain check?

Hurricane Ivan barrels into Florida.
Credit Bart Everson via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/editor/

Hurricane Hermine brought 80 mile per hour winds, storm surge, and lots of downed trees, but no elections fiasco. The storm made landfall in St Marks just 3 days after polls closed. But just as the state has an emergency storm plan, there’s an emergency elections plan as well. Ciara Torres-Spelliscy teaches election law at Stetson Law School.  She says Election Day can be postponed in the event of a natural disaster, domestic emergency or terrorist attack.

“What Florida law says is that the governor can declare a state of emergency and can postpone an election for 10 days after it was originally scheduled, or whenever is reasonably practical,” she said.

Then county elections officials go into overdrive – assessing the damage and organizing alternate polling places. Chris Chambless is the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisor of Elections. He says voting technology is a benefit in disaster situations, even if they have to pull out the back-up generators.

“So as the voter is processed through the electronic poll-book, it produces the ballot as needed specific for that individual and their registration. So it’s far more doable today with technology than it was back then,” he said.

There is some precedent for putting off elections. Ciara Torres-Spelliscy at Stetson experienced this firsthand, 15 years ago on September 11th.

“That was an election day for the city primary. And because of the attacks that happened early that morning, the mayor suspended the elections for that day,” she said.

And there’s certainly evidence of storms bashing elections protocol, if not postponing them entirely. In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused extensive flooding and $50 billion in damage, some to polling places. Hurricane Charley in August 2004 wreaked havoc on Southwest Florida as well. The hardest hit areas were forced to find new precincts, and presidential candidates cut their schedules in the state, spurring speculation of how the storm affected voter turnout and sentiment. Aubrey Jewett is a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

“Well you know if you have bad weather on Election Day, particularly if it lasts for several days when you’re heading into the Election Day it almost always depresses turnout, at least to some degree,” he said.

The odds of a hurricane making landfall on Election Day are pretty low. That being said, hurricane season does extend through the end of November, making it a possibility, however small. Franita Tolson is a voting rights professor at Florida State’s College of Law.

“It is a possibility. Sandy didn’t happen on Election Day either but it happened really, really close to Election Day. And Hermine happened close to the primary. So all of these things are possibilities, but our policies only change in response to bad things actually happening,” he said.

The last really bad thing that actually happened in Florida politics? The presidential election in 2000, Bush versus Gore. One of the closest presidential races ever, the contest came down to a series of recounts and controversial court rulings, throwing a serious wrench in the typical selection process. As bizarre as the 2000 political storm was, Aubrey Jewett at UCF can imagine a meteorological storm bashing the state as well.

“After researching Florida politics for over 20 years, nothing would surprise me. So if we had a hurricane on Election Day that would just be one more thing that we could talk about. Hey, only in Florida, who could’ve guessed?” he said, laughing.

Election Day is November 8th, and hurricane season ends November 30th.