As the general counsel of Al Gore’s 2000 recount effort in Florida, I’m often asked this question about the Senate and gubernatorial recounts now going on there: Why does “this” keep happening in Florida?
Part of what we are seeing now in Florida, as we did in 2000, is the product of factors specific to the state: persistently weak election administration in key counties, perennially close and hard-fought elections, and a colorful group of political players that seems ripped from the pages of a Carl Hiaasen novel. But the most important thing to know about what’s happening in Florida is that it has little to do specifically with Florida at all.
Take a step back and look at the big issues playing out in Florida, and what you’ll see, instead of Florida’s foibles, are three critical challenges to American democracy as a whole.
First, we allow interested parties — not neutral officials — to oversee the electoral process. It may seem absurd that Florida’s chief law enforcement officer, Gov. Rick Scott, who is also the Republican nominee in the Senate recount, is in a position to allege crimes by election officials, attempt to seize voting machines and dispatch state troopers to try to intervene in the post-election dispute. But a similar spectacle has been unfolding for months next door in Georgia.
As chief of election administration in Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp — who is also the Republican nominee for governor, in a vote also being contested — stalled more than 50,000 new voter registrations, supported closing more than 200 polling places in predominantly minority areas and purged 1 in 10 Georgia voters from the rolls. In Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach — again, also the Republican nominee for governor — employed many of the same tactics as Kemp, and fell just short of being elected.
Second, we claim to revere democracy, but too often we entrust the conduct of elections to amateurs and incompetents, with dated technology and far too little quality control. In Florida, the machine recount struggled in Palm Beach County, not because of underhanded maneuvers but because old machines overheated from processing so many ballots. The greatest question in the Senate election dispute between Scott and the Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson, is almost 30,000 ballots in Broward County that recorded a vote for the state agriculture commissioner but no vote for the Senate. This improbable scenario is explained either by misprogrammed tabulation machines or a poorly designed ballot. The Senate race’s outcome may depend on which option turns out to be true. The fact that either is possible is an indictment of how the election was administered.
But again, that’s not just in Florida. While some election misadministration (such as inadequate numbers of voting machines in targeted areas) appears to be a deliberate effort to suppress the vote in minority communities, much Election Day mayhem is caused by systems that are poorly run and underfunded. No matter how much we hail democracy on the Fourth of July, come November, elections are just another government service: In communities where thin budgets and lax leadership produce scant bus service, slow ambulance response times and unkempt parks, we should not be surprised to find confusing ballots, bad instructions at the polls and slow vote tabulation.
Finally, the democracy-undermining rhetoric coming from Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio (R) in Florida — equating vote counting with voter fraud — is by no means unique to Florida. Republicans fearing recounts launched similar attacks last week in Arizona, California and Georgia. There was at least one bright spot in Arizona: Martha McSally, the Senate GOP candidate, graciously conceded defeat in a close election, becoming a minor hero for doing what had been, until recently, the electoral norm.
Most disturbing of all have been President Trump’s attacks on the Florida recount, for what they portend about the 2020 election. Recall that in 2016, Trump refused to commit to accepting the election outcome if he lost — laying the groundwork for civil discord and fulfilling the wildest dreams of Russian agents intent on discrediting American democracy.
While such threats were bad enough coming from candidate Trump, they are another thing completely if they come from the commander in chief, raising the specter of his refusing to accept a peaceful transfer of power.
The best way to take such risks off the table is for Trump’s opponent to beat him decisively in 2020. But because the election might be close again, the other way to reduce that possibility, and to help restore the norm of both sides accepting the electoral process’s outcome, is to get the partisans out of election management, protect voting rights through new legislation and invest in quality election administration. Improving the quality of our elections is a vital step to maintaining the essence of our democracy.