DeSantis issues order adjusting election rules for counties hit by Hurricane Ian

The executive order allows for consolidated polling locations, mail ballot flexibility and more.
A load of mail-in-ballots seen at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections warehouse as workers transport them to begin distributing them in Tampa on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.
A load of mail-in-ballots seen at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections warehouse as workers transport them to begin distributing them in Tampa on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 13, 2022|Updated Oct. 13, 2022

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday issued an executive order giving Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota counties flexibility in handling the November election in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

The order, which was issued following requests from local elections officials in hard-hit Southwest Florida, allows for consolidated polling locations instead of traditional polling precincts, lets voters request mail ballots for an address not already on file, extends early voting and waives certain training requirements for poll workers if they were trained the prior election cycle.

Hurricane Ian made landfall in Lee County in late September as a near-Category 5 storm, wiping out several polling places and displacing residents from their homes. The full extent of the damage is still to be determined.

About one-third of the polling locations in Charlotte County were damaged from the storm, DeSantis’ executive order notes.

The Lee County elections supervisor, Tommy Doyle, wrote to the Division of Elections on Oct. 2 requesting that he be allowed to set up consolidated polling locations and to accept a mail ballot address change without a signed written request from the voter.

“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.”

The executive order from DeSantis says voters who change their vote-by-mail address by phone are still required to provide identifying information like a driver’s license number or the last four digits of a social security number.

Vicki Collins, a spokesperson for the Lee County Supervisor of Elections, said the executive order allows the county to move forward with a plan to use 12 early voting locations as voting centers through Election Day. That would allow every voter in Lee to use any one of those 12 locations instead of having to go to a specific precinct on Nov. 8.

Related: Southwest Florida works around Hurricane Ian ahead of November election

Having reduced locations means the office is able to fully staff the elections, Collins said.

“We will be able to continue to provide a secure, accurate election,” Collins said.

DeSantis’ executive order also encourages state employees to serve as poll workers and allows them to receive administrative leave for it.

Paul Donnelly, a spokesperson for the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections, said the office is still assessing polling locations and said a few of the 75 spots may not be able to support Election Day voting.

“Given the level of upheaval that has occurred in the wake of Hurricane Ian, a main goal for our office is to keep the voting process as “normal” as possible,” Sarasota elections supervisor Ron Turner said in a statement.

After Hurricane Michael hit in 2018, then-Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order allowing some of the same flexibility for election officials in the Panhandle facing devastation from that storm.

Turnout that year in affected counties fell by about 7%, according to research from the Brennan Center for Justice, and the main factor leading to reduced turnout was how far a voter had to travel to get to a voting location.

Sean Morales-Doyle, director of the voting rights program at the Brennan Center, said it was good that DeSantis’ executive order made clear if a polling location is moved or consolidated, it should ideally be in the same precinct or neighboring precinct.

But he said elections offices also need additional funding to inform voters about changes.

“I think that the policy adjustments in the executive order may be helpful, but without funding to support them, people may not actually be able to adjust,” Morales-Doyle said.

There are about one million registered voters in the three counties, which lean heavily red; there are about 453,000 registered Republicans in the three counties compared with about 266,000 Democrats.

“Florida will continue to lead the way in elections administration in 2022, and I am grateful for and confident that our local elections officials will have all of the resources and support they need to run another successful election,” Secretary of State Cord Byrd said in a statement Thursday. Byrd last week visited elections offices in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Lee, Hardee and Sarasota.

Amy Keith, program director of the advocacy group Common Cause Florida, said the emergency order falls short of helping voters beyond the select counties, despite Ian’s widespread effects across the state, and said Florida voters from any county should be able to request mail ballot changes by phone.

DeSantis’ executive order requires public notice of any changes the local elections offices plan to take.

Election Day is Nov. 8. Florida’s voter registration deadline passed on Oct. 11.

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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.

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?

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at