Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday extended early voting in the counties hit hardest by Hurricane Ian as officials in southwest Florida scramble to ready themselves for an election less than a month away.
In an executive order, DeSantis allowed Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties to set up additional early voting sites and lifted Election Day rules that require people to vote at their assigned precinct. Additionally, residents there can now request the county to send a mail-in ballot to an address different from the one on their voter file.
Secretary of State Cord Byrd said in a statement that he is “confident that our local elections officials will have all of the resources and support they need to run another successful election.”
“In the wake of Hurricane Ian, the Florida Department of State has worked with Florida’s Supervisors of Elections and Gov. DeSantis to ensure that the 2022 General Election is administered as efficiently and securely as possible across the state and in the counties that received the heaviest damage,” Byrd said.
Hurricane Ian slammed in Florida’s Gulf Coast late last month, leaving behind a trail of devastation in its path. In addition to destroying homes and businesses, the storm also damaged schools, churches and recreational centers, which traditionally serve as polling locations.
In Florida, counties can open early voting sites as soon as October 24 but must close them down the day before the November 8 election. Voters can cast a ballot at any early voting location but must show up at their assigned precinct on Election Day. DeSantis’ executive order removes that Election Day requirement for the three affected counties and also allows voting there to take place on November 7.
Lee County had previously planned to stop early voting on November 5, but Tommy Doyle, the country’s supervisor of elections, said earlier this week that he intended to allow people to vote at any of the county’s 12 polling locations for 16 days uninterrupted.
“So anywhere you live, you can go vote at any location,” Doyle said.
During the 2020 election, DeSantis declined to make similar voting accommodations due to the pandemic, despite requests from local election officials. In a letter to DeSantis sent in April of that year, the association that represents Florida supervisors of elections asked the Republican governor for flexibility to create additional voting locations and to allow people to vote at any designated polling site through Election Day.
DeSantis took other steps instead. He used his executive authority to allow counties to count mail-in ballots earlier than allowed by law, which helped the state’s 67 counties to tally and report 99 percent of their results the night of the election. He also lifted a law that prohibits state employees from assisting as poll workers. In an executive order, DeSantis wrote that these allowances were needed because “the strict application of some provisions of the Florida Election Code may prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with the COVID-19 emergency.”
Since then, though, DeSantis has suggested that Florida didn’t take any steps to ease the burden on election administrators caused by the pandemic, and he has criticized other states that did. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in February, DeSantis told attendees, “We didn’t change the rules when Covid came. We followed the law.”
DeSantis has also made targeted accommodations for voters affected by Hurricane Michael, a storm that ravaged the Florida Panhandle in October 2018. A year after Michael hit, DeSantis issued an executive order that allowed two counties to set up additional polling locations and extend early voting through Election Day, citing the ongoing recovery taking place in that part of the state.
Voting is already underway in Florida for the 2022 election, in which DeSantis is seeking a second term. More than 3.8 million ballots were mailed out statewide and about 330,000 have been returned to local election offices as of Thursday morning, including 2,400 in Lee County, 4,400 in Charlotte County and 5,400 in Sarasota County.
Doyle, the Lee County elections supervisor, has encouraged voters to request another mail-in ballot if theirs was lost or damaged due to the storm.
“You can request up to three,” he said.
CNN’s Melissa Alonso contributed to this report.