Hurricane Ian’s Impact on Florida’s Elections

A sticker that has a hurricane symbol and says "I Couldn't" intsead of "I Voted" on a red background.

On Sept. 28, Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida, blazing a trail of devastation across the state just about a month before the Nov. 8 midterm elections. While the storm will have a myriad of long-term effects on the region, it will also impact the upcoming elections. Already, the hurricane has forced emergency changes to election laws. Here’s how Hurricane Ian is impacting Florida’s elections this year.

Hurricane Ian has forced officials to make emergency changes to election laws.

The storm’s arrival brought widespread flooding, power outages and damage to large areas of the state, with the most severe impact in the state’s southwest. While all 67 Florida counties were able to send out mail-in ballots on time, many of those ballots may not be deliverable to the voter’s address on record. In-person voting during the state’s early voting period beginning Oct. 24 is also a concern, as many polling locations in the hardest-hit areas may not be usable anymore.

On Oct. 12, nearly two weeks after the hurricane made landfall, DeSantis issued an executive order allowing Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota counties to implement emergency changes. DeSantis’ move comes after lobbying from both local elections officials and activists. Lee County’s supervisor of elections sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) asking him to issue an executive order that would allow the county to open vote centers for displaced residents to vote away from their assigned precincts. At the same time, voting rights groups urged the state to extend early voting, open additional polling locations and give voters a way to change the address their mail-in ballot is sent to. DeSantis, prior to issuing the order, indicated he wanted any changes to be as small as possible, remarking “I think the more you depart… it just creates problems.”

Waiving several parts of Florida election law, DeSantis’ order:

  • Allows Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota counties to extend early voting until Election Day and designate additional early voting locations;
  • Gives voters in the counties the ability to request that their mail-in ballots be sent to an address other than the address on their voter registration;
  • Provides for ballot drop boxes to be moved and polling locations to be consolidated as necessary and
  • Increases the pool of eligible poll workers to address any shortages.

Notably, the order did not extend Florida’s registration deadline of Oct. 11, raising the possibility that some voters who intended to register but couldn’t because of the hurricane won’t be able to vote this year. DeSantis also declined to waive election rules in more Democratic parts of the state, like Orange County. What’s more, DeSantis’ order may not be the last change to the election the storm forces, as it’s also possible that litigation will lead to other changes.

Natural disasters — and the steps officials take to respond to them — can impact elections and even affect turnout.

As DeSantis’ executive order shows, natural disasters like hurricanes alter the administration of elections. Not only do storms, earthquakes, wildfires and other catastrophes affect campaigning and turnout operations, they can also destroy polling locations and prompt officials to change election dates. All of these changes can impact turnout, and thereby influence election results as well.

In 2012, for example, Hurricane Sandy impacted large swathes of the country just a week before the November general election that year. Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia all paused early voting during the duration of the storm, leading all three jurisdictions to then extend their early voting periods. In other states, power outages impacted polling locations. In the hardest-hit states — New Jersey and New York — outages and physical damage from the storm caused election officials to relocate more than 250 polling locations. In both states, many voters were allowed to cast provisional ballots if they were displaced from their homes. Later research showed that counties impacted by Sandy experienced a decline in turnout 2% greater than unaffected counties.

It’s not just the actual disaster that impacts elections — how government officials respond to disasters matters too. In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in 2018, a category 5 storm that devastated the Florida panhandle, Gov. Rick Scott (R) issued an executive order that waived some of the state’s election laws to give counties flexibility in responding to the disaster. However, the state didn’t give impacted counties any additional funding to maintain the same number of in-person polling locations, forcing many of the counties to consolidate polling locations. Later research found that this consolidation — not the actual impact of the hurricane — negatively impacted turnout, showing that sometimes it’s the response of governments to disasters that are more consequential than the event itself.

While DeSantis’ changes will help, turnout will still likely decrease in affected areas.

While the governor’s executive order will make it easier for the affected counties to respond to the disaster, that doesn’t mean the election won’t be negatively affected. As the research on Hurricane Michael in 2018 found, an executive order loosening election laws by itself isn’t enough to prevent turnout from declining in the worst-hit counties — voters may still find it too difficult to vote in-person or fail to receive their mail-in ballot in time. Indeed, election officials in Florida themselves have already admitted they expect turnout to decline and suggested “there’s not much you can do about some of that.” In a close election, the effects of the storm — and how officials responded to it — could prove to be decisive.