Communities across southwest and central Florida are still recovering from Hurricane Ian after it devastated the state last month. As midterm elections approach, election supervisors from storm-impacted counties say they are doing their best to ensure voters have undisturbed access to casting their ballot despite dozens of closed or inaccessible precincts. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an order on Oct. 13 extending early voting and mail-in ballot access for voters in predominantly Republican counties who were affected by Hurricane Ian. However, the order noticeably excludes Orange County, a predominantly Democratic county, and Volusia County, which is home to Bethune-Cookman University, a historically Black university.
Advocates say DeSantis’ decision to ease voting access should apply to all Florida residents who were impacted by Hurricane Ian, not just those in counties that will directly benefit the governor who is up for reelection. However, the decision comes as no surprise following DeSantis’ racially motivated redistricting, which siphoned Democratic Black voters into majority Republican counties, and his most recent decision to target and arrest people who voted in 2020 for voter fraud because of a prior conviction.
“I would love to see the governor stop playing very deliberate political games and stop treating particular communities in a punitive way,” said Dwight Bullard, the senior political advisor for Florida Rising. “There’s been just a deliberate and consistent effort to to go after [historically marginalized] communities, so it doesn’t shock or surprise me that the governor has been very specific about which counties get the special treatment because he’s had that calculus around who his perceived enemies are since he was elected back in 2018.”
DeSantis’ order to extend early voting and mail-in ballot access applies specifically to Lee, Sarasota, and Charlotte counties. In Lee County, 44,003 homes were impacted by Ian, with a total of $5.3 billion in damages. According to Tommy Doyle, Lee County supervisor of elections, every voting precinct was impacted—some were completely demolished by the storm, others are in need of repair, and locations like churches are taken up for storm relief efforts. Doyle petitioned DeSantis for an executive order to extend early voting through election day, a plan that would also include opening 12 voting sites accessible to any registered voter in the county.
Doyle said the ideal situation would be to have these “super voting centers” in every election, especially as the worsening climate crisis continues to exacerbate hurricane season. Doyle and other election supervisors have also been trying to pass legislation SB 774, which would allow voters to vote outside of their precinct within the same county. However, the bill has never been able to pass beyond committees, and most recently died in the ethics and elections committee in April 2021.
“If [this plan to extend early voter centers] goes well, I think we might be able to push that through,” said Doyle. “That way we would have fewer voting sites, better voting sites, and anybody can vote at any site.”
In Sarasota County, supervisor of elections Ron Turner said they are still assessing the number of storm-impacted precincts. Turner wants voters to know that there are three ways to vote in Florida: voters can vote by mail, early in person, or at their assigned polling location on election day. If mail ballots from Charlotte, Lee, and Sarasota counties are undelivered because the mail cannot get through to a flooded location or the home is damaged or destroyed, the ballot will be returned to the elections office, where they will attempt to contact the voter and provide alternative voting options.
While DeSantis’ executive order applies to Sarasota County, another predominantly Republican county, Turner said it’s unnecessary.
“That does not make sense for us,” said Turner. “We’ll deal with the individual voters, and we’ll make sure that everyone has an opportunity to vote in this election.”
Meanwhile, in Orange County, assessors estimate hurricane damages totaling $172.5 million, including commercial and residential properties, with some properties not even accessible yet due to flooding. On Oct. 10, the county extended their state of emergency order to continue prioritizing recovery efforts. Historically Black neighborhoods like Paramore and Pine Hills are still recovering from flood damages and standing water. The county, which leans Democratic, did not receive any voting exceptions.
“Gov. DeSantis is known for saying the quiet part out loud, and we know what the electoral performance of those counties have been historically,” said Bullard. “If he is going to create some sort of special circumstance for those southwestern counties, it should be for all 67 if we’re going to talk about the notion of fairness.”
Bullard said the most important part is to ensure that historically disenfranchised communities, such as Black, Indigenous, and migrant communities, have easy access to the ballot box. However, DeSantis has been notorious for limiting voter access in his three years as governor. In 2021, he passed a bill that limited where drop boxes could be placed, restricted who could drop off a voter’s ballot, mandated that drop boxes be staffed while open, and required voters to request vote-by-mail more frequently.
In the wake of Hurricane Ian, Black communities have already reported being disproportionately ignored by federal recovery aid in favor of wealthier, white neighborhoods. According to Bullard, being left behind on election day only exacerbates this disenfranchisement.
“We’ve heard countless stories at this point of communities in those counties that are historically Black, that have been historically marginalized, not receiving the same level of benefit from outreach efforts or water and food distribution efforts,” said Bullard. “People have taken it upon themselves via philanthropy and their own pockets to send help to those regions and those specific pockets that are being ignored. I don’t want that to be the case for voting either.”
Bullard also points to the students at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically Black university in Volusia County, who received a mandatory evacuation order on Sept. 26 as the campus suffered severe damage from the storm. Though students returned to campus on Oct. 17, the university acknowledged that several areas remained hazardous or blocked by debris and that some students would have to further delay their return based on the conditions in their evacuation location. According to Bullard, those displaced would likely have to find remote options to vote in the upcoming election without any benefits from the governor.
“People have to show up and vote in their best interest,” said Bullard. “People who are actively trying to suppress your vote, actively passing laws that disenfranchise entire communities, entire cities, clearly are not acting in your best interest, as it relates to voting. So your participation is necessary to show them that this is an unwelcome policy, and they, therefore, deserve to be retired from their positions.”
Bullard said Florida Rising has created a coalition hurricane response to collect donations that will go directly to people whom Hurricane Ian has impacted.
“If the government isn’t going to show up, we’ll definitely make sure we do everything we can to support folks who find themselves in those dire situations,” Bullard said.