As hordes of volunteers and attorneys plowed through ballots, and protesters and politicians caviled from the sidelines, Florida’s hand recount of its Senate race got underway Friday morning and almost immediately appeared to be a bust for Democrats.
The process hasn’t been so great for democracy, either.
The quirks and imperfections that the state’s vote count has highlighted — standard in many election systems — were exploited over the last 10 days by lawmakers and by a president who doesn’t seem to worry about accurately describing the fundamentals of ballot counting.
The comments by President Trump and other Republicans, alleging vote fraud without presenting any evidence, seem likely to shake voter confidence in the election system. Those doubts could endure into the next national election, elevating worries about what could happen if the 2020 presidential contest comes down to the wire.
Republicans had been in a near panic about the possibility of a hotly contested Senate seat slipping away here. But their worries faded as the hand recount sped along in Broward County, just north of Miami. It was there that nearly 31,000 ballots in the race between incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Republican Gov. Rick Scott seemed to have the potential to erase Scott’s very narrow lead.
But as vote counters examined those ballots one by one, the vast majority were not disputable. In all but a few hundred of them, voters had just left the Senate race blank. The count went so fast that election officials sent volunteers home before lunch.
“This is all but over folks,” Michael McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida, wrote in a tweet.
Scott leads the Senate race by about 12,600 votes out of more than 8.1 million cast.
Experts say the failure of so many Broward County voters to weigh in on a top-of-the-ticket race probably was a result of a poorly designed ballot. But there’s nothing Democrats can do about that now; both campaigns signed off on the ballot design.
Although Nelson’s lawyers still have some arguments to make in court, Democrats have said all along that their chances of winning depended heavily on uncovering a problem in Broward that would result in more votes for them.
All counties have a Sunday deadline to finish their hand counts of ballots that appeared blank or otherwise problematic in the machine count. The election results are scheduled to be certified Tuesday.
Even before Friday’s hand count began, the Florida recount had become a spectacle — a mini-version of the chaos in the state in 2000 when the outcome of the presidential race between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush hinged on the infamous “hanging chads” on punch-card ballots not pushed all the way through.
The heated political rhetoric around this recount and the blizzard of lawsuits that accompanied it obscure the fact that many inadequacies of Florida’s elections system have been addressed in the intervening decades.
Hanging chads are long gone as punch cards have been replaced with less problem-plagued optical-scan ballots. The rules on which ballots should count and how to tally them have become much clearer, as evidenced by the speed with which Broward compiled its hand count.
All voting systems are imperfect, however, and more so in Florida than some other places. The recount process has allowed Americans another look under the hood at how the votes are counted.
Some of it is unsettling.
“What is going on in Florida is disconcerting,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at UC Irvine. “It would be different, I think, in a lot of places.”
“You have machines breaking down; you have some incompetent election officials,” he said. “A lot of what we saw go wrong in 2000 is back in parallel fashion.”
Before hand counting got under way in Broward, a machine recount sputtered when election officials in the county failed to load the results into a state database in time.
Things were worse in Palm Beach County, another center of dysfunction and confusion during the Bush vs. Gore standoff. Machines there overheated and had to be shut down during the recount process. The county came nowhere close to meeting its deadline for the machine recount.
Florida’s tradition of having elections run by partisans doesn’t help. Broward County elections chief Brenda Snipes, a Democrat, made an easy villain for Republicans spinning conspiracy theories. Snipes has made many calls over the years that have bewildered election watchers.
After Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, appointed her in 2003 to replace a predecessor accused of misdeeds in the office, the county has seen noteworthy mishaps involving mail ballots not delivered and uncounted ballots suddenly appearing.
Trump has characteristically offered a darker explanation for her actions, declaring to the conservative Daily Caller that Snipes is not incompetent, but “very competent, but in a bad way.”
The president’s attacks spread far beyond Snipes. With no evidence, he has warned of fraudsters casting multiple ballots at the same polling places — pausing only to change their outfits between votes to throw poll workers off their trail.
Florida’s top elected officials joined in with charges of their own. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio accused Democrats of trying to “steal the election.”
Scott accused Nelson of “trying to commit fraud to win this election,” even as his own administration found no evidence of such fraud.
The heated language drew a rebuke from the federal judge overseeing a series of election-related lawsuits.
Scott has engaged in “campaign-trail rhetoric [that] is increasingly bombastic, imprudent, and not necessarily rooted in objective facts,” District Judge Mark E. Walker wrote Friday as he ruled in the governor’s favor on several issues.
“Scott has toed the line between imprudent campaign-trail rhetoric and problematic state action. But he has not crossed the line,” Walker wrote.
The attacks on the election system here seem to have emboldened Republicans elsewhere to make similar charges. In California, Rep. Mimi Walters and candidate Young Kim, both Orange County Republicans, made accusations of election fraud when their election-night leads evaporated amid the tabulation of mail-in ballots.
Walters conceded her race Friday.
“Any time you use the word ‘fraud,’ you better have the evidence to back it up,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. “We used to all understand that sometimes our chosen candidates lose elections. It doesn’t mean there is fraud. It doesn’t mean the system is rigged.
“The message voters are hearing from these charges is their votes don’t matter,” Becker said. “The president of the United States is fanning these flames, with zero evidence.”
Friday morning, outside the massive, brightly lit warehouse in Lauderhill where election workers and monitors were crammed around collapsible banquet tables, sorting through tens of thousands of Broward County ballots, the state GOP set up a mini-inflatable bounce house and labeled it “Brenda’s Ballot Box,” after Snipes.
“Your ballot matters until we tell you it doesn’t,” read one of the “rules” posted alongside the contraption.
“Proper protocol and rules don’t apply to Democrats,” said another.
But by noontime, as the swift pace of the recount suggested Scott was no longer in danger, the tone of the protests had mellowed considerably.
Activists on the left had stopped protesting. And those on the right, representing such groups as Bikers for Trump and Blacks for Trump, were offering up high-minded talking points about protecting democracy for Americans of all ideologies.
The president’s conspiracy theories had faded into the background, as ill fitting a narrative in which Republicans come out on top.