On September 28, 2022, Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwestern Florida, severely ravaging four Florida counties that are home to more than 1.8 million registered voters—nearly 12 percent of all registered voters in the state. Just 26 days later, election officials began administering early voting for Florida’s general election, but last-minute measures mean not all those affected by the hurricane will have equal access to the ballot box. As the effects of climate change continue to worsen, natural disasters will pose increasing threats for administering elections; the only reliable solution is to make elections resistant to natural disasters and events.
While many Floridians are busy trying to put their lives back together, a very consequential midterm general election is underway. Elections have consequences, and Florida has been the focus of many political issues—including voting rights, gun control, and reproductive rights—since the 2020 presidential election. Florida voters are eager to make their voices heard on the national, state, and local level, but the damage of Hurricane Ian has impacted their constitutional right to participate in democracy.
Elections need to be made disaster and climate resilient to ensure Americans’ constitutional right to vote is protected.
The hurricane caused severe damage to polling locations, disruptions to utility and telecommunications services, a shortage of poll workers due to many displaced residents, and delays in sending out and delivering mail-in ballots. As a result, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) issued an executive order to expand voting opportunities for three of the four most affected counties, all of which reliably lean Republican. The expanded opportunities mean that voters in the three counties covered by the executive order—approximately half of the more than 1.8 million voters severely affected by the hurricane—have access to additional days of early voting and can more easily change the delivery address for their mail-in ballots in order to accommodate their displacement. But the nearly 868,000 voters in Orange County, where Hurricane Ian caused historic flooding, do not have access to these emergency voting accommodations under the executive order.
Election officials in the three counties covered by the executive order are able to consolidate polling locations to accommodate for a shortage of staff and volunteers—although some experts have warned about the potential for this to reduce voter turnout.
Natural disasters and events have repeatedly wreaked havoc on Americans’ right to vote
Hurricane Ian is just one in a series of recent natural events and disasters that have had serious ramifications for Americans’ right to vote.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a very different sort of natural event, it showed the nation and the world the serious effects that natural events can have on democratic processes. Nearly all states were severely caught off guard by the pandemic, and many had to issue emergency orders, quickly pass legislation, and temporarily change voting laws to help ensure voters could safely and securely access the ballot box. Ultimately, 11 of the 16 states that did not offer all voters the option to cast a ballot by mail—a key voting method during the pandemic—made exceptions in response to COVID-19, but only one state has made voting by mail permanent. This means that in many states, measures that made elections resilient to the pandemic are no longer in effect, and if a similar event were to occur in the future, states would once again be scrambling to secure elections and protect the right to vote.
Natural events, particularly disasters, in proximity of elections are not as uncommon as one might expect. In 2018, Hurricane Michael also struck Florida in early October ahead of the midterm general election, reducing voter turnout in affected counties by approximately 7 percent. In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey just ahead of the presidential general election. And while Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and surrounding states in August 2005, the immense lasting damage and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people posed challenges for midterm elections more than a year later.
Additionally, wildfires along the West Coast have affected general elections in 2016, 2018, and 2020. The tornadoes in western Kentucky in December 2021 also affected the 2022 primary election; yet one measure that made emergency planning easier was election officials’ ability to set up vote centers—where voters could vote at any location within their county instead of an assigned polling place within a precinct. This measure was first temporarily implemented in the state during the pandemic before being made permanent.
US elections must be made more disaster and climate resilient
Elections are the bedrock of American democracy and a matter of national security. Just as federal, state, and local governments work to secure elections from foreign interference, it’s critical that elections are made resilient to natural events. Every year, this becomes more important as climate change continues to worsen and as an increasing number of more powerful and damaging natural disasters affect the United States. To put it simply, elections need to be made disaster and climate resilient to ensure Americans’ constitutional right to vote is protected.
While election officials did the impossible in 2020, to truly have resilient elections in which all voters can equally access the ballot box, states need to diversify voter registration and voting methods. They need to ensure multiple methods of voting—voting by mail and early in-person voting—are in place for every election so that elections officials and voters are familiar with these methods and, respectively, can easily administer and vote in elections through these methods. Similarly, access to voter registration options such as same-day voter registration and online voter registration is important to ensure displaced voters can easily register and update their addresses.
American democracy and elections cannot be casualties of natural events; they must be resilient, and the best way to ensure this is to diversify election procedures and practices and to preemptively implement measures that will be crucial in emergency situations.
The next natural event or disaster shouldn’t generate massive uncertainty across the nation as to how ballots will be cast, leaving election officials and administrators scrambling once again. This is especially true because the officials—including secretaries of state, election directors, and local election officials—who quickly gained the institutional knowledge of how to administer these methods of voting during the 2020 election cycle will likely be gone from their positions the next time a similar event occurs. Whereas if voting by mail and early voting were a part of regular election administration, the institutional knowledge would be passed down through generations of officials and would also be familiar to voters. Therefore, the solution to making elections resilient has to reside within the rules and procedures for administering elections.
Additionally, states that are particularly affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and flooding should implement or at least approve other election administration best practices and measures that are particularly important in emergencies—such as ensuring voters can always easily change delivery addresses for mail-in ballots and have access to drive-through voting in case of massive damage to polling places. Doing so will help ensure that voters across these states have equal access to the ballot box.
Natural disasters and events are largely unpredictable and uncontrollable. But what is within national, state, and local governments’ control is how prepared communities are for these inevitable events and whether or not election jurisdictions have the resources and funding for preparedness and response. American democracy and elections cannot be casualties of natural events; they must be resilient, and the best way to ensure this is to diversify election procedures and practices and to preemptively implement measures that will be crucial in emergency situations.
*Author’s note: As of September 30, 2022, Sarasota County has approximately 353,000 registered voters, Lee County has approximately 517,00 registered voters, Charlotte County has approximately 153,000 registered voters, and Orange County has approximately 868,000 registered voters. In total, there are approximately 14,462,000 registered voters in Florida.