Zeta cuts short early voting in Florida Republican strongholds

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TALLAHASSEE — Three counties in Florida’s conservative Panhandle are limiting early voting hours ahead of Hurricane Zeta, which is expected to hit the region Wednesday.

The shortened voting hours in the Republican strongholds come less than a week before Election Day, as millions of votes are being cast in the swing state. Republicans have used in-person early voting to chip into Democrats‘ vote-by-mail lead.

Escambia, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties are easy wins for President Donald Trump. Escambia County, the site of a Trump rally just last week, supported the president with 60 percent of the vote in 2016. Trump won 74 percent of the vote in Santa Rosa County and 71 percent in Okaloosa County.

Walton County, another GOP stronghold, has not yet cut early voting hours, but is monitoring the situation, said state Rep. Brad Drake, a Republican who represents the county.

In Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, early voting sites will close at 3 p.m. Wednesday and reopen at 11 a.m. Thursday at the earliest, depending on the storm’s damage. Normal early voting hours are from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., meaning there will be eight fewer hours of early voting in the counties.

Early voting in Okaloosa county will close two hours early Wednesday and open two hours later than normal Thursday, county Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux said.

“It’s an abundance of caution for us,” Lux said in an interview. “Hurricane Sally just in September weakened a bunch of trees and power lines, so we need to be careful, but I do think we will get back up and running quickly.”

It is not the region’s first time dealing with a hurricane during election season. In 2018, Hurricane Michael, which reached Category 5 strength, hammered the Florida Panhandle just a month before Election Day, but voters still turned out in large numbers.

“If we know anything after Hurricane Michael it’s that northwest Florida is so patriotic [its] residents will vote no matter what,” said state Rep. Alex Andrade (R-Pensacola). “I’m just worried that a storm will hit a community still reeling from Sally, wildfires and Covid shutdowns.”

In Hurricane Michael’s aftermath then-Gov. Rick Scott extended early voting hours, allowing polls to open earlier and stay open through Election Day.

Gov. Ron DeSantis spokesperson Fred Piccolo did not immediately respond to questions about whether the governor is considering any changes.

The storm could complicate the GOP’s emphasis this cycle on early in-person voting, a practice the party traditionally has dominated, but which has fallen off drastically amid persistent criticism from Trump that it is a vehicle for voter fraud.

Democrats have cast 614,547 more mail ballots than Republicans, but the GOP has outpaced Democrats by 315,526 votes since in-person early voting began Oct. 20.

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