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Voting in SW Florida may be difficult. Election officials look to Panhandle for answers

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 10/7/2022 Romy Ellenbogen, Miami Herald

When Hurricane Michael landed in the Florida Panhandle, destroying buildings and displacing residents, it came less than a month before the 2018 general election.

Four years later, Southwest Florida faces the same obstacle — holding an election during recovery efforts in a region ravaged by a hurricane.

Ian made landfall in Lee County on Sept. 28 as a monstrous Category 4 storm with winds of 150 mph. More than 100 people are dead from the storm, and more than a thousand have been displaced. Some communities still lack power, roads and bridges remain damaged and questions remain about basic needs like access to food and shelter.

Amid the wreckage, local election officials want to encourage voter participation and ensure a safe and effective Nov. 8 general election.

Gov. Ron DeSantis can issue an executive order that offers flexibility for the counties hit by the storm, but as of Friday morning, he had not done so. Eight days after Hurricane Michael made landfall, then-Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order adjusting election rules for the affected counties.

In a Wednesday news conference, DeSantis said he wants to “keep it as normal as humanly possible,” but said that counties like Lee and Charlotte may need accommodations. With Michael, those included flexibility with mail ballots and the location of polling places.

Though Michael’s aftermath offers some precedent, Southwest Florida has far more residents — and voters — than the Panhandle counties.

Assessing election needs

Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd, who oversees the state’s election system, assessed damage in affected counties this past week, according to department spokesperson Mark Ard.

“My primary concern and continued prayer right now is for the safety and well-being of Floridians, including supervisors of elections and their employees,” Byrd said in a statement. “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.”

Between Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Sarasota, Hardee, Hendry and DeSoto, there are about 1.3 million registered voters. Of those voters, just over 600,000 are registered Republicans and about 339,000 are registered Democrats.

Several of Lee County’s polling locations and the supervisor’s office have “evident” damage, according to a message from that county’s supervisor, Tommy Doyle.

“We have not yet completed assessing polling locations, but the ones on Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach, and Pine Island are gone,” spokesperson Vicki Collins said in an email.

Charlotte County and Collier County are also assessing voting locations.

But the most immediate deadline supervisor’s offices must meet is the mail-out deadline for vote-by-mail ballots. Ballots had to be sent by Thursday, according to state law. Ballots in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Hardee have been sent, according to each county’s office.

In Collier County, spokesperson Trish Robertson said they’re encouraging voters to request a mail-in ballot. If a ballot is delivered to a home that no longer exists, it will be returned to the supervisor’s office as undeliverable, and officials will then try to contact the voter to notify them, Robertson said. Voters can also contact the office and request the ballot be sent to a different address.

“We’re seeing an influx of voters who don’t know if they’re going to be back so they’re making more requests,” Robertson said.

Lee County’s Doyle on Sunday wrote to the Division of Elections and requested an executive order allowing voters to request a change in mail ballot address without putting it in a signed, written request.

After Michael hit in 2018, Scott’s executive order allowed for that type of flexibility, along with more early voting, suspended applications for poll watchers and the ability for supervisors to relocate and consolidate polling locations.

Gulf County Supervisor of Elections John Hanlon said he had to make use of Scott’s order. Nearly all of the polling precincts were damaged in the storm, and the ones left standing were converted to shelters for the displaced, he said.

In Doyle’s request for an executive order, he points to the same problem.

“Several established polling locations no longer exist,” Doyle wrote. “Securing a sufficient number of poll workers to staff 97 voting sites will be problematic. Hurricane Ian has displaced countless Lee County voters and poll workers from their homes.”

Hanlon said the Panhandle county, facing the destruction of its existing polling sites, opted for “voting supercenters,” a model similar to early voting, where voters from any part of the county can go to any location and cast their ballot. Hanlon said turnout was actually a few points higher that year, and that voters liked the model.

But overall, turnout in the counties hit by Michael fell by 7% in 2018, according to a new study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Kevin Morris, a researcher at the Brennan Center, said 7% is no small number — in 2018, it represented about 14,000 voters who didn’t turn out because of the hurricane. And though election turnout overall was up that year, in the areas affected most heavily by Michael it didn’t increase to the same degree.

Morris said their study found the most important thing for maintaining turnout is providing widespread access to in-person voting locations. A more robust and flexible vote-by-mail system also helps, he said, but even that wasn’t enough to offset polling location closures.

Counties where people had to travel farther to get to a consolidated polling location had a lower turnout, he said.

“For people who didn’t have to travel any farther, we didn’t find much of a turnout effect at all,” Morris said.

In Sarasota, Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner said they plan to rely on emergency statutes, the same ones they used during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, to move polling locations.

The office is still assessing its polling locations, but Turner said he expects some won’t be usable, with the most impact in the North Port and Englewood areas.

“We’re going to provide every opportunity for voters to vote,” Turner said. “We’re going to make sure this election is secure but accessible to everyone.”

For Bay County Supervisor of Elections Mark Andersen, the most difficult obstacle of recovering from Hurricane Michael and planning the election wasn’t the lost infrastructure. It was the people that work elections, like poll workers.

“That is the single most emotional thing that they’re going to deal with,” Andersen said.

“If somebody’s home is destroyed … elections may not be at the top of their plate,” he said.

On the other hand, Andersen said he found some voters were extra motivated to turn out to the polls after the hurricane — there was a sense it was all they could do, and what they had power over, he said.

At pop-up polling locations, it’s an emotional process, he said. Voters arrive and share stories of the homes they lost to give election workers their new addresses. Andersen remembers at one location, walking into the room and seeing everyone teary-eyed.

“Florida voters are tough,” he said. “That’s the message we’ve got to send. We’re tough, we’ll get through this, we will find a way to get the votes cast.”

What you should know if you want to vote in November:

1. The voter registration deadline is unchanged.

The last day to register to vote is Oct. 11. That has not been adjusted because of Hurricane Ian as of Friday. In 2018 with Hurricane Michael, slight extensions were offered in affected counties. Floridians can register to vote at a supervisor of elections office and online at registertovoteflorida.gov.

2. Displaced voters seeking a mail ballot should contact their local elections office.

All of Southwest Florida’s counties have sent their first batch of mail ballots to the addresses voters have on file, knowing that some of those homes may no longer exist. DeSantis has not issued any executive order that would allow a voter to make an address change request by telephone, but voters who expect that their mail ballot may be sent to an unreachable home should contact their local supervisor’s office to begin the process of requesting an address change.

3. You can request a mail ballot, not use it, and vote in person instead.

Voters who are unsure whether or not they’ll be back home by Election Day can request a mail ballot, with the last day to request being Oct. 29. If someone decides they want to, or are able to, vote at their polling location instead, they can bring the mail ballot to their polling location and have it canceled.

4. Your regular polling location may be gone.

Due to damage from the storm, certain polling locations are no longer functional. Local supervisors will likely be establishing new locations, or if granted the ability to do so by the governor, may open voting “supercenters.” Keep checking the local supervisor of election’s web page and social media to find out where you’re scheduled to vote come Nov. 8. Voters can also go to select locations for early voting, which any voter in that county can drop in to, regardless of where in the county they live.

©2022 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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