DeSantis changes voting rules for some Fla. counties hit by Ian

Gov. Ron DeSantis is making it easier for voters to cast ballots in three southwestern Florida counties that were hit hard by Hurricane Ian and are bastions for GOP support, sparking criticism that he is “politicizing a natural disaster.”

More than 1 million voters in Charlotte, Sarasota and Lee counties will have more time to get to the polls for early voting in the upcoming general election and will have more ways to file a mail-in ballot under the order the Republican governor signed Wednesday.

Some of the accommodations being offered run counter to recently enacted voting laws pushed by DeSantis and passed by the GOP-led state legislature. Among those laws is one that limits drop boxes, called “ballot intake stations” in the law.

Under the order, elections supervisors in the three counties can set up new early-voting and drop-box sites. Vote-by-mail ballots can also be sent to an address other than where the voter is registered.

“Tens of thousands of Floridians have been displaced, and today’s executive order fails to meet the moment and ensure voting access for all Florida voters,” Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of the voter rights organization Equal Ground, said in a statement. “Instead, Governor DeSantis is politicizing a natural disaster.”

Hurricane Ian slammed ashore as a Category 4 storm in Lee County on Sept. 28, killing over 100 people and causing upward of $75 billion in damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency offered disaster relief to 24 of the state’s 67 counties. Wind, storm surge and flooding left a trail of destruction that stretched from Naples to St. Augustine.

DeSantis’s emergency order says the decision to change the ballot rules for only three counties was made “based on the collective feedback of the Supervisors of Elections across the state and at the written requests of the Supervisors of Elections in Charlotte, Lee, and Sarasota counties.”

Lee County, where Hurricane Ian made landfall, has “few viable Election Day polling places post-storm,” according to the order, and “several established polling locations no longer exist.” The Lee County elections office also reported that the hurricane “displaced countless Lee County voters and poll workers from their homes.”

Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd said in a statement that his office worked with elections supervisors “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.”

Election Day is Nov. 8. Mail ballots are already being accepted in the state. Early-voting deadlines vary by county, but the order says early voting can begin on Oct. 24 in the three counties.

Voting rights advocates have been asking for DeSantis to make allowances for voters affected by Hurricane Ian across the state. Representatives from a number of organizations, including Equal Ground, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the Voting Rights Project, wrote a letter to Byrd and DeSantis on Tuesday asking for an emergency order to make voting easier in all 24 counties considered to be disaster areas.

Some of what the groups requested — including expanding early-voting days and locations — was included in the order DeSantis signed on Wednesday, but only for three counties.

More than 450,000 voters in Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota are registered as Republicans, compared with 265,000 Democrats and nearly 290,000 affiliated with no party.

Overall, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in many, but not all, of the counties damaged by the hurricane. Orange County, where Hurricane Ian passed as a Category 1 storm and left historic flooding in Orlando and surrounding areas, has 360,389 registered Democrats and 217,061 registered Republicans. It was not granted any exceptions.

Burney-Clark, of Equal Ground, said by excluding the other counties affected by the storm, the order “will remain yet another example of Governor DeSantis disenfranchising voters.”

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