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Florida's Recount Is Over, But Worries About A 2020 Election 'Meltdown' Persist

Nov 20, 2018
Originally published on November 20, 2018 9:14 am

After nearly two weeks, the Sunshine State's darkest recurring political nightmare is over.

Florida's recount process was marred by accusations of incompetence, antiquated voting technology and even a ballot design issue that some Democrats believe cost them a Senate seat. Republicans and the president even suggested — without evidence — that voter fraud had been committed.

For some it brought back flashbacks to the 2000 presidential election, when the nation's attention was brought to Florida's humiliating, poorly-organized recount procedure.

A day after the recount was finalized, with the state's gubernatorial and senate races in the GOP column, campaign lawyers and election administration experts are chewing over the recount process and what went wrong.

The worst fear they have is that there could be another election meltdown in two years, when the state could again be instrumental in deciding the presidential race.

"I was here in 2000, which was the last major election meltdown — and we're on the verge of another election meltdown because I think we are asking out election officials to do too much with too little," said Chris Sautter, a Democratic elections attorney.

Poorly run elections

The problems in 2018 centered in two counties on Florida's east coast.

"The fact that Broward and Palm Beach have had problems running elections for some time was widely known and not addressed," said Jason Torchinsky, counsel to Republican Rick Scott's campaign and an expert in election law.

The two counties had been "mecca of election administration problems for years," he said.

One of the major problems, both Republicans and Democrats agree, was the election administration led by the supervisor of elections in Broward County, Brenda Snipes.

Snipes led an operation which, for days after the election, could not tell the public how many outstanding ballots were left to count.

Her office also missed a deadline to submit a machine-based recount of votes by two minutes, and the new figures were rejected because they were late. And in a mind-boggling mixup, Snipes' office mixed more than a dozen rejected ballots in with nearly 200 valid ones.

Snipes resigned Sunday after her county finally submitted a final tally of votes. Her resignation comes after 15 years of work on elections administrations in that region.

"The first reform is getting rid of Brenda Snipes. That's happened ... that's a good reform, to get some competent administration in there, to get a re-configuring of how that office operates," said Richard Denapoli, a Broward County Republican state committeeman and an attorney with expertise on recount issues.

Other reforms will prove to be more difficult. Antiquated vote-counting machines in Palm Beach County — one of the wealthiest counties in the state — caused serious problems in the recount process. The county claimed that it had to restart part of the recount process after their vote machines overheated.

"The key is the money side of it, as it always is," quipped Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida who specializes in politics.

But she believes the humbling nature of the recount controversy will compel the state to dedicate more resources to future election administration — so that the state won't have to rely on voting machines which are approaching the drinking age in Florida.

"You have 65 angry election supervisors who did their job really well," she told NPR. "[The election supervisors outside Palm Beach and Broward counties] worked hard to improve things, so suddenly for them to have another black eye nationally after they've worked so hard has really made them angry, and you can be certain that they'll be leaning on their local legislators to fix these things."

Democrats in particularly were left shaking their heads again about ballot design problems that cost them politically. Democrats also believe that a confusing "butterfly ballot" design confused voters in 2000, costing them the election.

The design of the ballot in Democratic stronghold Broward County left the congressional and Senate races buried on the left side, below the ballot's instructions, and Democrats believe a substantial portion of the approximately 25,000 people who didn't vote in those races were confused by the formatting. Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott beat incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson by approximately 10,000 votes.

"From a Democratic lawyer's point of view, it's incredibly frustrating to see a Democrat lose a statewide election in Florida in large part due to a flawed ballot design. That clearly impacted the result," Sautter said.

Significant improvement over 2000?

But the stakes were undoubtedly lower than the 2000 presidential election, where a margin of just 537 votes decided the occupant of the White House, and a cup-half-full view would be that the state has made significant improvement since the last major scandal.

"Florida did demonstrate in 2018 that they have shortcomings in election administration, but also illustrated ways in which Florida has improved in 2000," said Charles Stewart, the director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. "There are no stories of widespread failures on Election Day, and the problems that did emerge were not consequential in who ended up winning."

Still, with Republicans quick to allege fraud in a contested race this midterm cycle, and a president who has not shied away from such allegations in the past, allowing these problems to fester could cause a national crisis if not addressed in time for the next election.

"The timing is ripe,' MacManus said, noting the Florida legislature will be in session in January. "This has been an embarrassment to the state."

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