TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday issued an executive order expanding voting access for the midterm elections in three counties where Hurricane Ian destroyed polling places and displaced thousands of people.
The move, which followed requests from Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties and voting rights groups, comes as Florida begins to undertake a massive recovery from the Category 4 hurricane that hit on Sept. 28 and leveled parts of the state’s southwest.
The order extends the number of early voting days in the three counties and authorizes election supervisors to designate additional early voting locations, steps that allow voters to cast ballots at any polling place in their registered county from Oct. 24 through Election Day, Nov. 8. Election supervisors can also relocate or consolidate polling places if necessary.
It also waives training requirements for poll workers and suspends a signature requirement for voters requesting to have a mail ballot sent to an address that is different from the one election officials have on file.
The decision was praised by Tommy Doyle, the elections supervisor in Lee County, which was the epicenter of Ian’s wrath along the Gulf Coast.
"The Executive Order is crucial because it allows us to move forward with our plans to make voting as accessible as possible to the voters of Lee County," Doyle said Thursday.
Secretary of State Cord Byrd, a Republican appointee of the governor, said state officials are working to ensure that the election is "administered as efficiently and securely as possible across the state and in the counties that received the heaviest damage."
The changes are similar to policies allowed by former Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, after Hurricane Michael in 2018.
DeSantis has faced questions over what steps he would take to ensure voting access in the heavily damaged southwest part of the state, which has leaned conservative in recent elections. The Republican governor, who is up for reelection, has made tightening election laws a top priority over the last two years, as he and others in the GOP reacted to former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
This week, a coalition of advocacy organizations sent a letter to state election officials that asked for extension of the state’s voter registration deadline, which ended Tuesday, along with a greater number of early voting days and expanded early voting hours in affected counties, among other requests.
"It’s literally about removing barriers when people are in a state of incredible hardship and in displacement," said Amy Keith of Common Cause Florida. "Just making it so they can do their civic duty, they can go out and exercise their right to vote."
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Separately, Doyle asked for similar changes, telling state election officials that the storm has devastated the county and its neighbors.
"In Lee county, there remain few viable election day polling locations post-storm. Several established polling locations no longer exist. Securing a sufficient number of poll workers to staff ninety-seven voting sites will be problematic. Hurricane Ian has displaced countless Lee County voters and poll workers from their homes," he wrote in a letter to the state on Oct. 2.
Hurricane Ian came ashore in Lee County with 155 mph (250 kph) winds that decimated coastal communities and inundated areas with flooding and debris. Ian was the third deadliest storm to hit the U.S. mainland this century and Lee County has reported about half of the state’s more than 100 fatalities.
A Lee County spokesperson said election officials there have mailed out approximately 170,000 vote-by-mail ballots and will continue to send ballots out daily until the Oct. 29 request deadline. She added that the county will use its most experienced polls workers at its polling places.
During a news conference last week, DeSantis said he wants to keep the election "as normal as humanly possible" and added that there may be a need to make accommodations for a county as badly damaged as Lee, as well as possibly Charlotte County to the north.
Southwest Florida leans Republican, with the counties of Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota delivering wins for DeSantis and Trump in their last general elections. Lee County voted for Trump in 2020 by nearly 20 percentage points over President Joe Biden. DeSantis is favored to win reelection this year over Democrat Charlie Crist.
DeSantis and the Republican-controlled legislature have in the last two years tightened various voting rules in Florida. A law signed by the governor in 2021, prohibits people who would help others drop off mail ballots from possessing more than two mail ballots other than their own, unless they belong to immediate family members. This year Florida increased the penalty for the so-called "ballot harvesting" to a felony.