UPDATED Florida Chamber Election Analysis: Potential Impacts to SW Florida’s Election Season from Hurricane Ian
Oct. 14, 2022, 9 a.m.
Hurricane Ian’s landfall in southwest Florida last week left a path of devastation across the region, the full scale of which is only now coming into full focus. The humanitarian and recovery efforts across the region are without question of paramount importance, with state and federal agencies both working alongside private sector and volunteer efforts to provide for these needs with the utmost urgency. The timing of Ian’s landfall does however also mean there may be some level of political impact upon the 2022 election cycle for southwestern Florida in the counties most impacted by Ian.
In particular, the Vote-by-Mail ballot period seems almost certain to experience disruptions across the Southwest. Yesterday was the last day for county Supervisor of Elections offices to send out VBM ballots for those with an active request, however with homes damaged or destroyed and hundreds of thousands of residents displaced it is unclear exactly how many Floridians will be unable to receive their VBM ballot through conventional means. Across the entirety southwest Florida VBM vote rates exceed the statewide average in recent elections, with no county larger or more VBM-heavy in its vote rate as Lee County.
Lee County found itself at the very heart of Ian’s landfall and path across Florida, with tens of thousands still without power more than a week after the hurricane and damage still being calculated. Lee is Florida’s 8th largest county by population out of the 67 counties in the state and is also the largest county in the state that can be considered reliably Republican: Governor DeSantis won 60% of the vote in Lee County in his 2018 gubernatorial bid, and President Trump won 59% in Lee in the 2020 general election.
Lee County is also one of Florida’s most prolific counties for utilizing VBM ballots. 51% of all votes cast in Lee County during the 2018 general election came from Vote-by-Mail, with only Pinellas County recording a higher share of the vote through this method. This VBM share increased to 56% of all ballots cast in the 2020 general election in Lee County. These figures make Lee County’s voter turnout highly susceptible to impacts upon the VBM ballot process.
What is less certain and may not become clear until after the election itself is the impact of Hurricane Ian on total turnout in southwest Florida. A Florida Chamber analysis of voter turnout following the 2018 general election estimated that slightly more than 20,000 fewer votes were cast in counties impacted that year by Hurricane Michael than would otherwise have been expected. These counties were less densely populated than those of SW Florida, though Michael’s impact that year came closer to Election Day itself and lent officials less time to deal with the logistical challenges of conducting an election during such a recovery period.
An executive order by Governor Scott following Michael’s landfall in 2018 implemented several measures designed to ensure displaced voters were able to exercise their right to vote. These measures included allowing VBM ballots to be sent to addresses other than a voter’s primary address on file if requested, the option to create additional in-person early voting sites, and permission to relocate and consolidate polling sites across impacted counties. Whether these or other measures to keep Floridians impacted by Ian enfranchised are deemed necessary remains to be seen.
UPDATE: On Thursday, Governor DeSantis issued an emergency executive order for Charlotte, Lee, and Sarasota counties to ensure ballot access for these most impacted areas of Florida. Measures taken broadly mirrored those taken in the greater Panama City region after Hurricane Michael, including expanded early voting windows, the ability to request Vote-by-Mail ballots to be sent places other than a voter’s primary residence, and the ability to move/consolidate voting locations.
Over the coming weeks, additional analysis of the political impact of Hurricane Ian will continue to be provided.