MEXICO BEACH, Fla. – Brian Koepke is trying to piece his business, Kilgore's Brick, Pavers and Tile, back together. His house here is unlivable. So choosing who he will vote for during the midterms isn’t his priority right now.
“People have bigger things on their minds right now,” Koepke said. “Survival.”
Damaged polling sites, displaced voters, mass communication issues, polling site staffing problems, widespread power outages and inaccessible streets have created an uphill battle for supervisors of elections in the Florida panhandle. The area, with about 200,000 voters, has traditionally had the highest turnout in the Sunshine State’s elections – but it remains devastated by Hurricane Michael.
“For the first time during an election period that I remember, their homes are torn up, their children are separated from them, there are different things that are going on,” said Panama City Beach Mayor Mike Thomas.
Hurricane Michael was the worst storm to ever strike the Panhandle, making landfall in Bay County one day after the state’s voter registration deadline, leaving voters with such major disruptions a month before Election Day that the Department of State extended the deadline in some areas.
The disruptions could have a real impact on voter turnout in the midterm elections of a state known for its razor-thin margins with the governor’s mansion and Senate seat up for grabs.
“Our phones were down, the internet was down, any kind of electronics just didn’t function in Bay County for, I guess, five days and we’re still intermittently having those problems of communication of how voters can get a hold of us,” said the county’s Supervisor of Elections Mark Andersen, who rode the storm out in his elections office to protect voting equipment as the Category 4 storm’s 130-mile-an-hour winds ripped off the building’s roof.
Political analysts said there is still a lot of confusion and questions going through a voter’s mind about how to cast a ballot.
“For the person that wants to vote, how do they find out about it? How do they find out where the new precincts are? Can I ask for a vote-by-mail ballot even if I’m not even in Florida, I’m in Georgia staying with a relative, how can I still vote?” asked Susan MacManus, a political analyst.
Andersen told Fox News he is doing everything he can to preserve the integrity of the election.
Instead of going to one of Bay County’s 44 originally assigned precincts to vote, voters hoping to cast their ballot in person could visit any of nine "mega polling sites” created to accommodate the county’s more than 120,000 registered voters. About 20 percent of the county’s voters have already voted, with five days left to Election Day.
“Bay County voters will show up and they’ll be able to get to the sites to get their ballots cast,” said Andersen.
Three of the nine sites will only be open the Friday before Election Day for remote areas pummeled by Michael, such as Mexico Beach. The remaining six have been open since early voting began on Oct. 27 and run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day through Election Day.
“All of these sites are on main thoroughfares that have been cleared or are being cleared right now...if you want to vote we will have a method to vote,” Andersen added.
But MacManus said because of this election’s tight races, regardless of the dire situation, supervisors should be prepared for criticism over where the polling sites are.
“There will be critics because some will say, ‘well it’s not in these kinds of neighborhoods, that kind of neighborhood.’ But it’s also true that they’ve had to go to locations that are accessible and in good shape because a lot of structures are not,” she said. “You have to take what’s available and…nothing is perfect in terms of location ever.”
State officials eased voting rules in the hardest hit counties after the storm, allowing supervisors to extend and add sites for early voting and allow absentee voters to have their ballot mailed to a different location than their home address.
“I’m still going to vote,” said long-time Callaway, Fla. resident Tom Berrier. “I’m not going to pass it up because of a little old hurricane.”
But for some, it’s not high on their to-do list.
“The midterms are on my mind and I want to vote, and I may, but I’ve got way more important things right now,” said Koepke, of Mexico Beach. “I’ve got to put my business back together, my house is not livable,”
In Florida, one percentage point can be the difference between winning and losing.
“It’s certainly a concern for Republicans,” said MacManus. “This is a high-turnout area and it was a base that they were counting on getting and its most likely turnout will be a lot lower because people can’t get out or simply have other things on their minds, like trying to get their lives back together.”
The hurricane-affected counties produced 70 percent of Gov. Rick Scott's victory margin in 2014. In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump got 77,000 votes in the nine hardest-hit counties. His biggest margin came from Panama City in Bay County, which is registered Republican by a 2-to-1 margin.
“I can promise you Bay County voters are still going to show up,” Andersen said. “They might have to do a bit more than the average camper…but they’re pretty doggone patriotic and they will participate.”