In Florida Panhandle, Hurricane Michael casts shadow over voting

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PANAMA CITY (Reuters) – Catina Hill, a registered Republican who says she votes in every election, kept her streak alive on Tuesday despite the devastation that Hurricane Michael wrought in Florida’s Panhandle last month and the chaos it still brings to her life.

A sign directs voters to a new polling location where Hurricane Michael destroyed many schools and other buildings used as polling stations in the area in Parker, during the midterm elections in Florida, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

“I came this close to not voting today,” Hill, a 43-year-old landlady said as she left a polling site at the Parker United Methodist Church in her hometown of Parker. “Everything is piling up.”

Hill, who said she voted for Republican Rick Scott for U.S. Senate, but admitted she was unsure who she picked for governor, said the past month has been consumed with getting food, water and electricity.

“The power’s constantly flickering and my kids are scared. I’m sleep deprived,” said Hill, lamenting that she could not properly research the candidates and issues before arriving to the polls.

Voters in the Panhandle, a conservative-leaning region, have been seen as vital to the Republican Party’s election day fortunes in Florida, where Scott, the current governor, is attempting to unseat incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, and Tallahasee Mayor Andrew Gillum is running against Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis.

Hill was one of thousands of voters in hard-hit Bay County who were forced to travel to one of several “mega-voting sites”. They were set up after one of the worst storms in history to hit North America badly damaged the usual polling locations.

Sherri Hawkins, 49, a registered Republican drove 25 miles from tiny Fountain to vote in one of the big polling stations outside Panama City, which saw a steady stream of voters, but no lines.

Many of her neighbors won’t make it to the polls, she said.

“A lot of them don’t have vehicles or gas money or the means to get here. It’s going to have a severe impact.”

State and local Republican leaders have gone to great lengths to boost turnout in the Panhandle.

Early voting was extended by an extra day or two, through Monday in Bay County, the only jurisdiction in Florida where voters could cast ballots on the eve of the election, according to Dave Ramba, a local Republican chairman and consultant for election supervisors statewide.

Gulf County state Republican committeeman David Ashbrook predicted storm-related dislocations would depress turnout in his more remote communities.

“Our biggest issue has just been transportation. We have a lot of people in outlying areas whose cars have been crushed, who are homeless,” he said. “Honestly, the election was the last thing on a lot of people’s minds. It’s sad, too, because this is an important one for the GOP in Florida.”

TOSS-UP RACES

Two hotly contested races in the nation’s most populous swing state are considered bellwethers for the elections, which will decide whether Trump’s Republicans maintain control of both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Public opinion polls show DeSantis trailing Gillum, who is seeking to become the state’s first black governor. Nelson is also seen leading Scott, his Republican challenger.

A lower-than-normal turnout in the Panhandle could hurt DeSantis and Scott.

On the outskirts of Panama City where she owns a cleaning business, Melissa Hutchinson, 51, said she, her husband and two adult sons were “100 percent” behind Trump.

But she was preoccupied with issues like whether she can afford to cut down a tree threatening to fall on her house, and does not expect to be able to vote.

“It’s what I’ve got to do to get my normal life running again,” she said outside her trailer home, which lacked electricity and running water for two weeks and was still without air conditioning on Monday.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Some took solace in the fact the disaster would dampen turnout among Democrats, too.

“I don’t think this storm said, ‘Oh we’re going to tear up Republicans’ houses and not Democrats,’” Karr said.

“It didn’t matter if you were a poor person renting a manufactured home or a wealthy doctor with a big home at Bay Point. The storm tore your stuff up.”

Reporting by Terray Sylvester, writing by Bill Tarrant and Steve Gorman

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