Election officials in Florida are discussing alternative means of voting for counties most affected by Hurricane Ian, with just a week before the deadline for mail ballots to be sent out and less than six weeks until Election Day.
Mark Earley, president of Florida Supervisors of Elections, said that while it was too early to know the full extent of damages, and no final decision has been made, there’s a chance several counties will have to delay their scheduled mail-out dates for domestic vote-by-mail ballots — potentially past the deadline imposed by Florida’s Constitution.
“There’s a possibility some counties may need some additional time,” said Earley, who is also Leon County’s Supervisor of Elections. “That’s still being assessed on a county-by-county basis. ... Most counties will be able to meet that deadline. I think there might be some exceptions to that.”
State law requires supervisors of elections to send vote-by-mail ballots during a seven-day window, which is between 40 and 33 days before an election.
For this year’s Nov. 8 general election, that means the last day is Oct. 6. The first day to send mail ballots was Thursday.
Most county election offices affected, Earley said, have delayed mail ballot mail-outs at least until Monday.
The massive Hurricane Ian, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm and caused historic storm surge flooding, has left damage all through Southwest and Central Florida in its wake.
Attempts to reach elections officials in Lee and Charlotte counties — where Ian roared ashore Wednesday — were unsuccessful.
Nearly 200,000 people voted by mail in those two counties during the most recent midterm election, in 2018.
Earley said that he has been in touch with most election supervisors, particularly those in southwest Florida, with the exception of one official, whom he declined to name to avoid raising unnecessary panic over his well-being.
For the most part, Earley said, those supervisors are still assessing their own personal needs and will “hopefully tackle their elections offices in the morning.”
“They had to react fairly quickly,” he told the Miami Herald. “Some of them moved away from the county ... and so they’re still trying to work their way back to their offices.”
The Florida Department of State did not respond to a request for comment about the mail ballot situation. But Earley said he has been in constant contact with Secretary of State Cord Byrd about the situation.
“We may have to bring voting centers online to service multiple precincts, very much like an early voting site. And it may well affect vote-by-mail,” Earley said. “Polling places is going to be a problem. Poll workers may be a problem, just because of interrupted lives and people being displaced. Serving the voting needs of our emergency management workers or first responders. That’s always a challenge in these circumstances.”
The outlook for early voting sites and Election Day polling places in some of the most affected counties — including Lee, Charlotte, Collier and Sarasota — is likely to be similar to voting in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in 2018, Earley said.
Michael hit in the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 10, 2018, as the state prepared for the midterm election less than a month later.
After Hurricane Michael, in an attempt to allow people to vote amid massive displacement and devastation, then-Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order granting flexibility from state laws to storm-struck counties.
Bay County Supervisor of Elections Mark Anderson ran afoul of the law, defying a direct order from the state not to allow votes by email or fax. Most voters in Bay County — as in Lee and Charlotte counties — are registered with the Republican Party.
Earley said that, along with the state, his association is looking at “creative ways” of getting mail ballots to people who have been displaced by the storm, have downed mailboxes or lost their homes entirely.
“I think we’ve got better systems available to us. Especially in the vote-by-mail realm, with the ability very much like how we provide ballots for overseas military and ADA voters,” said Earley, saying it’s possible displaced voters could receive an electronic version of the ballot to print out and return to an elections office. The one silver lining, he said, is that Ian struck over a month away from Election Day.
“The number of vote-by-mail voters is, you know, in the millions in Florida, so the infrastructure in the southern part of the state is certainly being put to the test,” Earley said. “We’ve also been communicating with the United States Postal Service to assess what their operational capabilities are, and when they may come back online.”
In the meantime, Earley said he hoped that even with the storm, officials can run elections as normally as possible.
“For the voters out there, be patient. We are working very hard to make sure that this election, like all the other elections we’ve had, is very secure, and you can count on the results,” he said.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
TAMPA BAY CLOSURES: What to know about bridges, roads in Ian’s aftermath
WHEN THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.