This election year’s “October surprise” may be an act of God.
Hurricane Matthew, which killed at least 842 people in Haiti, is currently barreling down on much of Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott (R) has ordered some 1.5 million to evacuate. Despite this devastating disruption to life in the Sunshine State, Scott refused the Hillary Clinton campaign’s request to extend voter registration, which ends on Monday, Oct. 11—just four days away.
“I’m not going to extend it,” Scott said when asked by reporters in Tallahassee. “Everybody has had a lot of time to register. On top of that, we have lots of opportunities to vote: early voting, absentee voting, Election Day. So I don’t intend to make any changes.”
If 2012’s stats are any indication, the residual effects of Hurricane Matthew may reduce Florida voter registration by some 50,000 people—a significant number in the hotly contested battleground state that, with its 29 electoral votes, is a must-win for Republican nominee Donald Trump and a key state for Clinton, who leads by an average of just 2.4 points.
Who benefits from Hurricane Matthew’s disruption is a question not easily answered. Political analysts tell CNBC that the lack of attention on the election could benefit Clinton—but that neither candidate stands to gain much from attempting to insert themselves into what is expected to be a widespread natural disaster.
According to University of California law professor Richard Hasen, an election-law expert, Hurricane Matthew may be the ultimate wild card—one that could further Trump’s claims that the system is “rigged.”
Looking at the effects on voter turnout in New Jersey following 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which caused tens of billions of dollars in damage and lost business, Hasen writes in Slate that it caused massive confusion and disruption on Election Day, and a Rutgers study found evidence of voter fraud.
“Just imagine if any of this happens in Florida after Matthew,” writes Hasen. “We already have Donald Trump telling voters that the election is rigged. Any attempt to try to accommodate, or fail to accommodate, voters will be second-guessed, challenged, and likely litigated.”
To make matters worse, according to Hasen, Florida law complicates any challenges to the state’s election results—remember 2000’s George W. Bush v. Al Gore battle, anyone?—which is even more problematic given the increased likelihood of litigation due to complications in the voting booths.
“With Trump’s uncertainty about whether he would concede a close election to Clinton, this is a nightmare in the making,” writes Hasen. “Let’s hope, for the sake of Floridians and all of us, that this storm is not as bad as it appears it will be.”
Update 12:48pm CT, Oct. 7: The death toll in Haiti as a result of Hurricane Matthew has risen to over 840 people.