In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, residents still struggling to return to their homes and assess the damage are facing another challenge: registering to vote before it’s too late.
Nowhere is the issue more acute than in Florida, where a fight to extend that deadline has turned bitterly partisan and litigious. Some 1.5 million Floridians were placed under evacuation last week as the Category 4 hurricane bore down on the state’s coast, closing down county and state government services.
After Gov. Rick Scott (R) refused to extend Tuesday’s deadline to register, a federal judge ruled against him, extending it at least until Wednesday and rebuking Scott’s decision as “irrational,” “nonsensical” and “poppycock.”
“These voters have already had their lives (and, quite possibly, their homes) turned up-side down by Hurricane Matthew,” U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker wrote. “They deserve a break, especially one that is mandated by the United States Constitution.”
Even as he was pleading desperately for people to flee Matthew, Scott steadfastly refused to extend the voter registration deadline. On Sunday, the Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit asking the federal courts to intervene before the deadline passed.
Leaders in other states hard hit by the storm have taken steps to minimize the effect on voting. In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has extended the state’s registration deadline to allow paperwork to be postmarked by Tuesday.
And in Georgia, voters can register electronically, an option not available to Florida residents.
In North Carolina, where saturated rivers are forcing thousands from their homes, newly restored rules that were nearly taken away by Republicans will allow voters who miss the deadline to register during early voting.
But with many of that state’s eastern counties struggling with still-rising floodwaters, it remains unclear what effect the storm could have on polling places and displaced residents. The North Carolina State Board of Elections said Monday it was still trying to assess possible damage and effects.
In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey in the week before the presidential election, it hindered voters. According to a study by Robert M. Stein of Rice University, voter turnout decreased by 2.8 percent in affected counties, and there were also fewer polling places available.
In the crucial swing state of Florida, where polls have shown Democrat Hillary Clinton slightly ahead of Republican Donald Trump but within the margin of error, voting rights activists, legal experts and Democrats have accused Scott of taking political advantage of the storm to prevent residents still reeling from the hurricane from voting.
“You shouldn’t have to choose between your physical safety and your right to vote,” said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “It’s something you would think would have bipartisan support.”
Scott, chairman of the super PAC supporting Trump’s presidential campaign, explained his decision last week before the hurricane hit, saying, “Everybody has had a lot of time to register. On top of that, we’ve got lots of opportunities to vote: early voting, absentee voting and Election Day. So, I don’t intend to make any changes.”
When pressed by reporters, Scott said, “Look, this is, this is politics.”
At stake are a sizeable number of potential votes. In the 2012 election, during the last five days before the deadline, 104,351 Floridians registered to vote, said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist.
“The number increases as you get closer to the deadline,” he said. “People procrastinate. They wait until the last minute to register.”
Of those last-minute registerations in 2012, 40 percent were Democrats compared with 21 percent Republicans. And a disproportionate number were minorities, he said.
But Smith and others point out other factors that make it less clear if Republicans would gain any substantial advantage by refusing to extend the registration deadline. Of those who registered at the last minute in 2012, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to cast a ballot afterward.
Others point out that many of the Florida counties hit hardest by Hurricane Matthew lean Republicans.
“That’s why I find the whole thing so surprising,” said Perez. “I’m not hearing a good defense for why he doesn’t do this.”
In their lawsuit on Sunday, Florida’s Democrats pointed out how aggressively Scott appealed to voters to evacuate, telling them, “This storm will kill you. Time is running out.” But on the same day he made those appeals, Scott announced that the registration deadline would not be extended.
Leading up to the hurricane’s arrival, voting activists noted, post offices and county offices were closed. Many residents either evacuated or holed up in their homes. And in its wake, roads have been flooded and many residents have lost power.
Scott’s staff did not answer questions emailed to his office, but pointed to voting legislation signed by Scott and recent statements in which he said he wanted “100 percent participation.”
Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said that at an event Monday, the governor discussed “that it is very important people have the opportunity to vote. He also mentioned that people still have time to register and should do so over the next few days.”
Exacerbating the situation is that unlike other states, Florida does not offer same-day registration. Nor does it offer online registration.
In their lawsuit, the Democrats raised constitutional objections as well as claims that Scott’s actions violate the Voting Rights Act because they could disporportionately affect minorities.
In his order Monday granting a temporary extension, the judge said there is no reason Florida could not extend its deadline when other states have done the same.
“If aspiring eligible Florida voters are barred from registering to vote, then those voters are stripped of one of our most precious freedoms,” Walker said.