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Ian is disrupting voting in a GOP region critical for Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio

NewsIan is disrupting voting in a GOP region critical for Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio

The Wewahitchka Public Library in Wewahitchka, Fla. was one of just two polling places in Gulf County after Hurricane Michael damaged other sites across the county in 2018, or required that the sites be used for other purposes. State officials provided impacted counties with flexibility on voting locations and practices in the wake of Michael, and are considering similar emergency accommodations for communities impacted by Hurricane Ian.

Hurricspanne Ispann 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.

Ispann slspanmmed into Southwest Floridspan as a powerful Category 4 hurricane, with the most significant damage in four deep red coastal counties — Sspanrspansotspan, Chspanrlotte, Lee spannd 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.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a double-digit lead over Democrat Charlie Crist in a new poll.

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

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.”

Tax break proposed:Seven weeks spanhespand of Election Dspany, DeSspanntis proposes $1.1 billion in tspanx brespanks next yespanr

Rubio-Demings polling:Mspanrco Rubio mspanintspanins lespand over Vspanl Demings, survey shows

Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio leads Democratic challenger Val Demings in a new Mason-Dixon poll, but his support is below 50%.

Super voting sites in Lee County?

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.

“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 Cord Byrd: ‘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.

“Everyday conditions are improving in the various counties, the various areas, and we want to make sure we are as preive as possible in making sure that any changes that we make to our election code, or issuing an emergency order, are as narrows as possible to achieve the goal of making sure everybody can vote,” Byrd said.

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.

Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd and Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett met in Bradenton Wednesday, Oct. 5. Byrd was touring counties impacted by Hurricane Ian to assess how their election infrastructure held up.

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 Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that voter fraud cost him the 2020 election, DeSantis signed major election overhauls each of the past two years. 

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. 

Mail ballots go out statewide 

The deadline for Florida elections officials to send out mail ballots is Thursday. Doyle plans to get his in the mail by then, as does every other supervisor in hard-hit areas. Doyle knows many of the mail ballots can’t be delivered because the homes are severely damaged or gone altogether.

The ballots are “going to even the (homes) affected by the hurricane (that) can’t get mail delivery,” Doyle said. “We’re sending those out. They’ll be returned as non-deliverable. They should call our office and request another vote-by-mail to a location that they may be at.”

Lee is the most populous county that was heavily impacted by Ian and also the hardest hit, with storm surge decimating coastal communities such as Fort Myers Beach, Pine Island and Sanibel. Downtown Fort Myers also flooded, and Cape Coral sustained severe storm impacts. 

Doyle is eager for the state to provide flexibility for his community on voting. Other parts of Southwest Florida may need less help to pull off a successful election.

Checking polling sites in Sarasota County

In Sarasota County, Ian’s impact was much more severe in communities such as North Port and Englewood in the southern portion of the county than in areas to the north, such as the City of Sarasota.

Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner said he knows of at least one polling location that no longer is available for Election Day, but isn’t sure how many he’ll lose yet. While super voting centers make sense in Lee County, Turner said, he’s not sure if he’ll need them in Sarasota.

“I don’t know for us in South County what we’re going to need yet,” he said. “We may need some flexibility with either moving Election Day sites, moving early voting sites.”

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.

No election issues expected in Manatee County

Among the 17 is Manatee County, just north of Sarasota, where Ian delivered a glancing blow that caused extensive power outages, widespread but mostly minor structure damage and other issues. The storm appears not to have damage any election facilities, according to Manatee Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett.

“I don’t expect any issues” with the election, Bennett said.

Manatee mailed out absentee ballots on Monday.

Sarasota mailed out 118,000 absentee ballots Tuesday. Turner knows many won’t be delivered in the southern part of the county, where some communities are still experiencing flooding and others have major structural damage.

Turner said the U.S. Postal Service will hold the ballots for 10 days and allow people to pick them up at the post office. After that, they’ll be returned to the elections office.

Supervisors will contact voters whose ballots are returned, instructing them on how to pick up the ballot or have it sent to another address.

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.”

Andersen was criticized for also allowing some voters to cast ballots by email or fax, a practice allowed for military and overseas voters but not the general population. That’s not something being contemplated, Byrd said.

“That was a violation,” Doyle said. “He did his job. Mark did a great job during that time. He may have gotten scolded for it. I don’t think we’re going to have to do that. There’s other ways for people to get their ballots if they react in time.”

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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