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Florida officials are scrambling to limit Hurricane Ian's impact on the election

Construction crews make repairs to a bridge on the island of Matlacha, in Florida's Lee County, on Wednesday. Lee County's election officials are scrambling to figure out plans for this fall's election.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Construction crews make repairs to a bridge on the island of Matlacha, in Florida's Lee County, on Wednesday. Lee County's election officials are scrambling to figure out plans for this fall's election.

Election officials in Florida say they are going to meet Thursday's deadline to mail ballots to voters for this year's midterm elections, despite the widespread flooding and damage caused by Hurricane Ian last week.

However, in hard-hit areas, in-person voting remains the biggest concern.

Tommy Doyle, the elections supervisor in Lee County — where Ian made landfall in Florida — says there were initial worries about getting mail ballots out because the county's local print and mailing house had lost power. Since this past Sunday, though, he says the vendor has been able to assemble those mail ballots.

"We got it done," Doyle said in an interview Thursday. "We got them out in time."

Mark Earley — election supervisor in Leon County in Florida's Panhandle, and the president of the state's association of election supervisors — says all 67 counties in Florida were able to get mail ballots out in time. He says infrastructure around the state for mail ballots was not impacted by the deadly storm.

"All of the counties managed to meet those deadlines," Earley said. "I think that is phenomenal — and I think attests to our learning experiences from previous hurricanes."

In 2018, for example, Hurricane Michael devastated the Panama City area in late October — right before that year's midterm elections. It raised aseries of issues for local election officials.

In comparison, areas affected by Hurricane Ian have a bit more time before Election Day, on Nov. 8 this year.

Doyle says his Lee County staff has been working extremely hard to make sure voting is "as easy as possible" for voters affected by the storm. He says the county has so far sent out about 170,000 ballots, and people are still requesting mail ballots every day.

Many mail ballots will have no place to go

But not all those ballots are expected to make it to voters affected by Hurricane Ian.

"The post office will attempt to deliver," Doyle said. "But there will be places that they can't deliver to — they can't even get to."

In that case, he says, the Postal Service has alternate sites for people to pick up their ballots for up to 10 days after the attempted delivery. Doyle says he's also urging Lee County voters to get in touch with his office so it can send them another ballot to whatever address they are staying at due to the hurricane.

Earley says getting mail ballots to people affected by the storm remains one of a list of issues the governor may need to address.

As it stands, he says, it is not clear whether election officials need Gov. Ron DeSantis to sign an executive order extending the deadline voters have for changing the address on their vote-by-mail request.

"It may need an order, it may not need an order," Earley said. "Those are some of the things that are being looked at."

In-person voting is a big concern

Earley says election officials in Southwest Florida are also still assessing what in-person polling sites remain standing after the hurricane.

In Lee County, Doyle says they have 12 early voting sites that are "good to go" and will be able to serve voters. However, getting the 99 polling sites they planned to have up and running for Election Day is not possible, he says.

"We are not capable of having precinct voting," Doyle said.

As of Thursday, he says his office has been able to confirm 30 out of the county's 99 Election Day sites. "The rest of them you can't contact, or they have damage," he said.

Earley says DeSantis will likely need to sign an order to allow counties like Lee County to operate early voting centers on Election Day, so a voter can cast a ballot at any center instead of only being allowed to vote at their assigned precinct.

When asked this week, the Republican DeSantis said the state is waiting to hear back from counties affected by the storm. He says Lee County in particular is expected to propose solutions for how the state could help, because officials there would likely need the most flexibility.

DeSantis said there is precedent for vote centers on Election Day following a hurricane — which includesHurricane Michael. In general, though, he said he doesn't want to make too many changes to how elections are normally run.

"I want to keep it as normal as humanly possible," he said in a news conference Wednesday. "I think the more you depart, it creates problems."

Doyle says it is already clear that a greenlight on vote centers on Election Day is "very necessary" in Lee County and he's hoping that will be worked out soon.

Even small changes to how elections are run could have an impact in Florida, where election margins are usually very slim. DeSantis is among the candidates on this fall's Florida ballot, as he seeks reelection.

His considerations for approving voting changes following the hurricane come after he's signed a series of reforms to state election law to tighten access. Among those changes are new restrictions on mail ballot drop boxes.

DeSantis won 60% of the vote in Lee County in 2018, when he was first elected.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.