Hurricane Ian is significantly disrupting Florida's midterm election in a highly-populated and heavily-Republican region, potentially impacting voter turnout in part of the state that's critical for the reelection bids of Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Ian slammed into Southwest Florida as a powerful Category 4 hurricane, with the most significant damage in four deep red coastal counties - Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier.
Those four counties have a combined 1.3 million voters, including 582,743 Republicans, 321,706 Democrats and 371,390 no party or minor party voters.
The region's strong Republican tilt makes it essential to the GOP's playbook for winning statewide races in Florida. Republicans need to have big margins of victory in this part of the state to offset losses in Democratic-leaning areas, something the GOP has been highly successful at over the years.
DeSantis carried three of the four counties by double digits in 2018. He won Collier by 30 percentage points, Charlotte by 26, Lee by 22 and Sarasota by 9. Recent statewide polls show he and Rubio with significant leads over their Democratic challengers, former Gov. Charlie Crist and Congresswoman Val Demings.
Now DeSantis is weighing what kind of emergency elections accommodations to make for this region, a move that could impact his own chances for reelection and is likely to be highly scrutinized after he spent the last two years tightening voting rules.
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DeSantis said Wednesday during a press conference on Pine Island that some communities impacted by Ian may need flexibility in how they administer elections. He singled out Lee and Charlotte Counties as those most in need, saying "my sense is the other counties probably are in good shape" when it comes to elections. The governor also said he wants to change as little as possible.
"I want to keep it as normal as humanly possible," DeSantis said of the election. "I think the more you depart... it just creates problems."
Super voting sites?
Lee County Supervisor of Elections Tommy Doyle said he is requesting an executive order that would allow him to scrap the traditional Election Day practice of having voters cast ballots in their neighborhood polling locations. Many of those facilities were destroyed or are unusable - including all of the ones on the barrier islands - and he doesn't have the staff to man others, Doyle said.
Instead, he wants to operate 12 super-voting sites that would open for early voting and stay open continuously through Election Day, providing three extra days of early voting. Anybody in the county could vote at any of the 12 sites through Election Day.
The same thing was done in Bay County and other Panhandle communities devastated by Hurricane Michael shortly before the 2018 midterm election. Former governor and current U.S. Sen. Rick Scott signed an executive order providing voting flexibility in eight counties, most of them heavily Republican.
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"I don't have the manpower to run Election Day, which if we didn't have this storm would be 97 voting sites," Doyle said. "I do have the manpower to run (voting) centers… if they let me have that."
Doyle also wants DeSantis to suspend a requirement that voters must request in writing to change the address where a mail ballot is sent. Making a request in writing could be difficult for voters displaced by the storm. Doyle wants to accept verbal address change requests over the phone.
Secretary of state'Election security and integrity is top priority"
Doyle met Tuesday with Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd, the state's chief elections officer, who has been touring counties damaged by Ian to assess their election needs.
In an interview with the USA TODAY Network - Florida Wednesday during a stop in Bradenton, Byrd said he's considering the changes requested by Doyle and other supervisors and expects to make a decision soon.
Byrd said he's using the executive order on voting that was issued after Hurricane Michael as a template. The order authorized super voting centers and an extension of early voting.
Byrd seemed more skeptical of waiving the signature requirement for sending absentee ballots to a different address.
"Obviously, election security and integrity is a top priority of the governor, of the legislature, of myself and of the supervisors, and so before we make any changes we're going to give it full and due consideration," Byrd said.
DeSantis has tightened rules for absentee ballots, which could leave him open to criticism if he loosens the rules to boost voting in a GOP-leaning area, even during a disaster.
In the wake of former President Donald Trump's false claims that voter fraud cost him the 2020 election, DeSantis signed major election overhauls each of the past two years.
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Much of the stated focus by Republican leaders has been on reducing the risk of people fraudulently casting ballots.
Among the changes is stricter scrutiny by elections supervisors of absentee ballot drop boxes and limits on where they can be placed, a ban on people dropping off more than two mail ballots other than their own, unless they belong to immediate family members, and enhanced identity requirements for people requesting a mail ballot.
Byrd disputed the idea that any changes to help communities impacted by Ian would cut against the grain of the GOP's recent focus on tightening voting rules, saying he doesn't believe lawmakers have made it more difficult to vote.
"I would disagree with the contention that we've made it harder to vote, it is incredibly easy to vote," he said.
The Crist and Demings campaigns did not respond to requests for comment about possible changes to voting rules for the communities impacted by Ian.
A total of 17 counties have been declared major disaster areas by the federal government, but many of them likely will be able to run a normal election.
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Elections officials in communities slammed by Ian are looking for guidance from Panhandle communities impacted by Michael. Bay County Supervisor of Elections Mark Andersen said his best advice is to allow the super-voting sites.
"That's the only way I pulled it off," Andersen said. "Couldn't have been done any other way, and I think that's going to happen again."
Doyle believes the storm is likely to drive down voter turnout.
"I'm sure it's going to affect turnout," Doyle said. "It's going to lower the turnout. We're going to do everything we can to give access to voting, but it definitely will. Elections are not on people's minds."
That's not what happened in Bay County in 2018, though. Voter turnout actually went up, from 51% in the 2014 governor's race to 53%.
"I heard a lot of voters say: 'I can't do anything else but I can do this,'" Andersen said.
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USA TODAY Network - Florida reporter John Kennedy contributed to this report. Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Hurricane Ian impacts could reduce turnout in Florida midterms