TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Running an election in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian is going to be a monumental challenge for elections officials in the Florida counties hit hardest by the storm as they face poll worker shortages, damaged polling places and voters who lost their homes.
With a month to go, county election supervisors in Southwest Florida and other parts of the state that suffered the most from Ian lost a full week of prep time and are now in the early stages of assessing the damage.
“I want to keep it as normal as humanly possible. I think the more you depart, the more it makes problems,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday, speaking at a news conference near Pine Island in Lee County, moments before he left to meet with President Biden.
Lee County bore the brunt of Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in Cayo Costa, destroyed 80% of the structures on Fort Myers Beach, wiped out causeways and bridges and flooded downtown Fort Myers.
Ian damaged elections offices, early voting sites and election day polling locations, Lee County Elections Supervisor Tommy Doyle said. The branch offices in Bonita Springs, Cape Coral were closed until further notice, and the pre-canvassing and poll worker training classes were canceled.
“We want voters to be confident that we are working hard to ensure they can safely, securely, and efficiently cast their ballots in the upcoming election,” Doyle told voters this week.
For many voters, though, their regular polling location will not be available on Nov. 8, which is Election Day, he said.
For Lee County and Charlotte County, which also saw severe flooding from Ian, DeSantis said, “there may be need for accommodations,” mentioning a decision by Sen. Rick Scott, who was governor when Hurricane Michael struck the Panhandle on Oct. 10, 2018.
Scott issued an executive order allowing Bay County to set up super-voting sites where precincts were destroyed and extended early voting through the weekend before Election Day.
Bay County Supervisor of Elections Mark Anderson called them “voting sites on steroids” because of their ability to process so many more voters than a traditional polling precinct.
That precedent goes back to Hurricanes Andrew in 1992 and Charley in 2004, which took a similar path as Ian across the state but was much smaller in size, said Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles.
“There is a history the governor can draw on to help,” Cowles said.
The problems could dampen voter turnout in an area that is predominantly Republican. Of the 1.58 million registered voters in Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Sarasota, Manatee, Desoto and Hardee counties, 720,000 are Republican and 411,000 are Democrat.
Matt Isbell, a mapmaker and demographer for Democratic candidates who studies voter turnout, said turnout in 2018 was unusually high across the state except for the counties struck by Hurricane Michael – Bay, Gulf, Jefferson and Washington.
“It didn’t drop but, notably, it didn’t increase, either,” Isbell said. “That’s a clear indication that Michael caused stagnation.”
Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said it’s reasonable to assume there will be a depressed vote in southwest Florida, but it will be hard to predict whether that plays out to the advantage of Republicans or Democrats.
“Because some of the most adversely affected people are Democrats who lived down there in the most vulnerable areas to a certain extent,” McDonald said. “Republican [areas] are wealthier and they’re gonna be able to navigate the problem better than some of the poor people in southwest Florida.”
Secretary of State Cord Byrd was meeting with local elections supervisors to determine what they need to make sure eligible voters, even displaced ones, will get to vote.
“We are considering all contingencies at the moment and will be in continual contact with Supervisors of Elections to evaluate the conditions of the affected counties moving forward,” Byrd said in a statement.
Alan Hays, supervisor of elections for Lake County, which mostly escaped the wrath of Ian, said he couldn’t imagine why the governor wouldn’t issue an executive order like Scott did with Michael.
“Our association for the last 3, 4 years has been asking the Legislature to put it into law to leave it up to the local election supervisors to use if they want,” Hays said. “Voting Centers are not a new idea but have efficiencies and conveniences.”
The biggest challenge is going to be extending early voting, Cowles said, but also the recently imposed restrictions on dropping off ballots to secure ballot locations, Cowles said.
“The governor needs to lift some of those restrictions,” Cowles said.
Strict ID requirements could also be a problem for displaced residents, McDonald said.
“The problem that people have been having is that they may not remember which document that they [used] when they filed their mail ballot request. And it could be that some people simply have lost that document now,” McDonald said.
This is why the government should have fewer constraints and more flexibility in running elections, he said.
Another challenge is finding poll workers and election workers, Collier County elections spokeswoman Trish Robertson said.
Even in Orange County, which largely escaped the worst of the storm and has no damaged polling places, Cowles said he’s losing tech workers who are going to work for FEMA in the recovery efforts.
Poll workers, however, showed up for training this week. “They probably are looking forward to that extra pay for Christmas,” he said.
Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, also president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections Association, said nobody’s voting equipment was damaged, and all paper products and computers were saved from water damage.
“The systems survived very well,” Earley said. “In previous years a hurricane would have brought more damage.”
Some counties looking at damaged early voting sites are considering putting up FEMA-style tents with air conditioning in the parking lots of those polling places, Earley said.
“All of our early voting facilities are fine; however, we have learned that at least two of our Election Day sites are unusable; one being on Isles of Capri and one being in the City of Naples,” Robertson of Collier County said. “We are still waiting on about 13 more sites, but the others are all good.”
Sarasota County’s Venice and North Port offices suffered water damage and have yet to reopen, Elections Supervisor Ron Turner said. “Any changes in locations will be announced prior to the start of in-person early voting,” Turner said.
Charlotte County Supervisor of Elections Paul Stamoulis said while their offices are secure in county-owned, hurricane-hardened facilities, they are assessing the condition of their polling locations.
Ian struck at a time when county election workers were stuffing envelopes and mailing out vote-by-mail ballots to thousands of registered voters who’d requested them. Some 331,000 ballots were mailed out by five counties — Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Sarasota and Manatee.
They likely are going to voters who have been displaced by the storm, or to addresses that no longer exist.
Early said anyone concerned about getting their ballots needs to contact their county elections supervisor to notify them of an address change. Also, people who have relocated out of the county but planning to vote at an early voting site or on Election Day still have time to request a vote-by-mail ballot, he said.
Charlotte sent out 44,000 absentee ballots Tuesday. “If any are returned, we make every effort to contact the voter,” Stamoulis said.