When I was a young reporter on the city desk of the Miami Herald, I dreamed of catching an assignment that would send me racing to the airport and jumping on a plane. To my surprise, the adventure arrived in the form of an obituary.
I was working late when the night editor hollered at me from across the newsroom. A bulletin had come over the wire announcing the cancer death of a former judge on the Florida Supreme Court. Eager as I was to chase the story, I had to ask why, exactly, we were so hot for the details of an old judge’s demise.
Turned out the judge was a federal fugitive, wanted by U.S. marshals and the FBI, unseen and unheard from for several years after skipping bail on charges of smuggling thousands of pounds of pot.
It’s like that in Florida, where the ordinary has a tendency to go extraordinarily wrong. A writer once suggested that North America had been picked up and shaken hard and all the loose bits fell into the peninsula. If I tell you about a guy being arrested after throwing a severed head at a cop, you’re going to guess it happened in Florida. Same when a guy breaks into a restaurant, strips naked and starts playing bongo drums.
Normally (a strange word to use when the topic is Florida), this would all be good fun, provided yours is not the head that gets severed. But it appears that royally messing up U.S. elections has become a Florida pastime, and the Sunshine State has finally gone too far. We’re trying to save democracy, Florida. Please stop screwing around.
You might recall there was an election on Nov. 6. Five days later, officials in heavily Democratic Broward County were still counting ballots. Five days. Where did all these votes come from? County elections supervisor Brenda Snipes wasn’t saying exactly. With roughly 715,000 votes eventually tallied in Broward, turnout was heavy for a nonpresidential year — but light compared with two years ago.
Though bungled elections are about as plentiful as sunburns in Florida, you can’t be surprised that Republicans, narrowly ahead in races for the governor’s office and the Senate, are mighty suspicious as their margins erode in the murky waters of the state’s most Democratic county. From the outside, incompetence and cheating aren’t always easy to distinguish from each other. As a result, the door was open for Palm Beach clubman Donald J. Trump, in his role as the nation’s provocateur in chief, to tweet accusations of rampant fraud, backed up by the usual zero evidence.
Fortunately, there is adult leadership at the top levels of state government. Just kidding! Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) added his own unsubstantiated allegations of fraud and spent the week complaining that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would not open an investigation, even though he could order one, but didn’t. It goes almost without saying that Scott is not only the state’s chief executive; he’s also a candidate with a stake in the mayhem, clinging to an edge over incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D).
Those with long, and painful, memories: See if anything here rings a bell. A ballot appears to have been poorly designed, causing thousands of voters to mess up. Machines may or may not have malfunctioned. Legions of lawyers have descended on the state, with Republicans preaching the sanctity of initial returns while Democrats scramble desperately to find and count more votes. Lawsuits are flying like gnats.
It’s as if nothing was learned from Florida’s epic botch of 2000, when the presidency hung in the balance for 36 excruciating days, and the U.S. Supreme Court lost the confidence of half the country, all thanks to a baffling “butterfly ballot” dreamed up in Palm Beach County. We’re still living the hangover from that debacle.
But there’s one important difference this time. In 2000, the pre-recount margin between George W. Bush and Al Gore was 537 votes out of nearly 6 million cast. That’s roughly 1 vote in every 10,000. This year’s big races are not nearly as close. More than 12,000 votes separate the Senate candidates, while the gap is some 33,000 in the governor’s race. Though Florida law requires a machine recount — and possibly an expensive, time-consuming hand count — the outcomes are unlikely to change.
So let’s take a deep breath and let Florida fumble through. A state that can rally from a natural disaster such as Hurricane Michael will surely survive its latest human-made crisis — and America will survive, too.
But when this is over, though: Please, Florida, please. Invest in reliable voting machines. Appoint competent election officials. Ask around for tips on ballot design. Elections in America are tough enough these days. I’m not sure how much more of your craziness we can take.
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