Hurricane Ian has caused a major disruption to Florida's midterm elections in a heavily Republican region, which could have a significant effect on voter turnout in an area that is critical to the GOP's success in state elections. The Category 4 hurricane caused the most damage in four deep red coastal counties: Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier. These four counties have a total of 1.3 million voters, including 582,743 Republicans, 321 706 Democrats, and 371,390 voters without parties or from smaller parties. The region's strong Republican slant makes it essential for the GOP to win state elections in Florida. In order to offset losses in Democratic-leaning areas, Governor DeSantis is considering what type of emergency electoral adaptations to adopt for this region.
He pointed to Lee and Charlotte counties as the neediest and said that he wants to change as little as possible. Lee County Election Supervisor Tommy Doyle is requesting an executive order that would allow him to eliminate the traditional Election Day practice of having voters vote at voting centers in their neighborhoods. Instead, it wants to operate 12 super voting sites that would open for early voting and would remain open continuously until election day, which would provide three additional days of early voting. Doyle also wants DeSantis to lift the requirement that voters must request in writing a change of address to which a ballot is mailed. Making a written request could be difficult for voters displaced by the storm.
Doyle wants to accept verbal requests for a change of address over the phone. Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd has been touring counties damaged by Ian to assess their election needs. He is considering the changes requested by Doyle and other supervisors and expects to make a decision soon. Byrd seemed more skeptical about waiving the signature requirement to send absentee ballots to a different address. DeSantis has tightened the rules for absentee voting, which could leave him open to criticism if he relaxes the rules to promote voting in an area tilted by the Republican Party, even during a disaster. Much of the stated focus of Republican leaders has focused on reducing the risk of people voting fraudulently. The changes include stricter control by election supervisors of absentee ballots and limits on where they can be placed, a ban on people delivering more than two ballots by mail other than their own, unless they belong to immediate family members, and improved identity requirements for people who request a ballot by mail. Lee is the most populated county that was severely affected by Ian and also the most affected, as the storm surge decimated coastal communities such as Fort Myers Beach, Pine Island and Sanibel.
Downtown Fort Myers was also flooded and Cape Coral suffered serious storm impacts. In Sarasota County, Ian's impact was much more severe in communities such as North Port and Englewood in the southern part of the county than in areas of the north, such as the city of Sarasota. Sarasota County Election Supervisor Ron Turner said he knows of at least one voting center that is no longer available on election day, but he's not sure how many he'll lose yet. A total of 17 counties have been declared serious disaster areas by the federal government, but it is likely that many of them will be able to hold normal elections. Among these 17 is Manatee County, just north of Sarasota, where Ian struck a one-on-one blow that caused major power outages, widespread but mostly minor damage to the structure, and other problems. The deadline for Florida election officials to mail ballots is Thursday. Lee County plans to receive its ballots by mail by then, as do all the other supervisors in the hardest-hit areas.
Many mail-in ballots can't be delivered because the houses are badly damaged or have completely disappeared. The Crist and Demings campaigns did not respond to requests for comment on possible changes to the voting rules for communities affected by Ian. Manatee mailed absentee ballots on Monday and Sarasota mailed 118,000 absentee ballots on Tuesday. Lee County Election Supervisor Tommy Doyle is eager for the state to provide flexibility when it comes to voting while other parts of Southwest Florida may need less help to achieve a successful election. Governor DeSantis is weighing what type of emergency electoral adaptations should be adopted for this region while Secretary of State Cord Byrd is considering changes requested by Doyle and other supervisors. DeSantis has tightened rules for absentee voting which could leave him open to criticism if he relaxes them during a disaster.