PENSACOLA, Fla. – The hurricanes (search) that struck Florida this year left polling places in shambles and displaced thousands of voters, but election officials say they are taking steps to allow everyone the opportunity to cast a ballot Nov. 2.
Gov. Jeb Bush (search) issued an executive order allowing the U.S. Postal Service (search) to forward absentee ballots — a practice that's normally prohibited — to make sure they get to residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed.
The storms wrecked more than 90 polling places, although most have been replaced or consolidated with other sites. Despite the damage, election officials predict that voter turnouts, aided by early and absentee voting, will equal or exceed other presidential elections.
The issue has special resonance in Florida, where recounts held up the presidential election for five weeks in 2000 before the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush the winner by 537 votes.
Carl Burns, 76, cast an absentee ballot this year because he didn't want to lose his vote to Ivan, one of four hurricanes that pummeled Florida in August and September.
"I don't know if my old polling place is going to be there or not," said Burns, a retired claims manager from Pensacola in Escambia County.
Polling places for 10 of the county's 90 precincts were lost when Ivan hit the Panhandle in mid-September, but election chief Bonnie Jones has found replacements.
There have been 15,000 requests for absentee ballots in Santa Rosa County, twice as many as four years ago, said county elections supervisor Ann Bodenstein. She attributes much of the increase to voters who have been forced to relocate.
Bodenstein wants her staff to be understanding of hurricane victims.
"I told my poll workers 'Just put your arms around them,"' Bodenstein said. "They're all going to have stories to tell."
Bodenstein can tell her own story: Ivan's storm surge inundated her waterfront home, and now she might have to tear it down.
"I think they are going to want me to bulldoze it," she said.
Charlotte County lost most of its 80 polling places to Hurricane Charley in August. Although those precincts were consolidated into 22 sites for the primary, turnout was only 18 percent compared to 24 percent four years ago.
"I hate to say I was pleased about an 18 percent turnout, but with all the things we went through I thought that was good," said elections supervisor Judy Anderson. She expects a turnout of nearly 80 percent for the general election.
Water from the storms also damaged about 20 of the county's touch-screen machines, which won't be used, Anderson said.
Her Punta Gorda office also was damaged. "I'm sitting here with holes in my ceiling," Anderson said, looking up at insulation poking through the openings.
Hurricane Jeanne in late September may have been responsible for an Oct. 14 computer crash that postponed a pre-election test of touch-screen voting machines in Palm Beach County. Outgoing election chief Theresa LePore suspects the storm cut off power and air conditioning to a room with a heat-sensitive server.
In DeSoto County, Supervisor of Elections Mark Negley expects to double up two of his 15 precincts at one site and use a tent at another where the building is occupied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Charley had no apparent affect on primary turnout in DeSoto, where it was fractionally higher that the 26 percent for the 2000 primary.
"Things are not normal," Negley said. "But they are more normal than they were at the end of August."