Even before Democrat Andrew Gillum conceded Saturday after a long recount in Florida’s gubernatorial race, there was little hope he would prevail, but the campaign was no longer about that.
In the new political landscape, recount battles are being waged with unprecedented fervor, as political parties and activists look beyond the race at hand and see opportunities to reform voting laws, resculpt the political map and motivate and focus the base. There can be victory — and considerable campaign cash — even in losing.
“Both parties have assembled these armies, and elections have turned into wars to fight on every front,” said Paul Gronke, who studies elections at Reed College in Portland, Ore. “One of the fronts they are now fighting is over election procedures. The intensity has ramped way up.”
Experts say the fights have become more intense than they were even in 2000, when election day mishaps in Florida threw the results of a presidential race into turmoil.
Democrats look back on that recount with bitterness, expressing regret that, in their view, they were not as prepared or as ruthless as the GOP in pursuing victory. That recount ultimately ended in victory for Republican George W. Bush.
Since then, the skepticism over the rules that determine who gets to vote and how has festered in both parties.
Republicans say some laws aimed at making ballot access easier invite fraud, despite a lack of evidence of improper voting. And, with control of many state governments since 2010, the GOP has aggressively scaled back voting rights in several states.
Democrats brand the Republican effort an orchestrated campaign of voter suppression, and the dispute hit a boiling point in 2016, when Donald Trump narrowly won the electoral college vote for president.
A swing state presidential recount effort launched on behalf of Hillary Clinton by Green Party candidate Jill Stein revealed how potent a tool recounts could be to motivate the liberal base.
Some 161,000 donors contributed $7.3 million to the Stein recount effort, which wasn’t sanctioned by the Democratic Party. The ability of a fringe political player to set in motion an operation of that scale moved the Democratic Party establishment to update its playbook.
“Jill Stein showed you could successfully fundraise and energize people by calling for a recount,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist and election law expert at the University of Florida.
He said that while the extended recount campaigns launched by Democrats in Georgia and Florida this year began with candidates looking at vote tallies and seeing a path to victory, donor enthusiasm has propelled them forward even as their chances of victory faded.
That would not have been the case in the past, McDonald said.
In the Florida Senate race, where incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, trailed by a scant 12,600 votes out of more than 8.1 million cast, his recount campaign against Gov. Rick Scott raised $2.5 million in a matter of days. Scott raised $1.4 million. Tens of thousands of volunteers joined the effort on both sides.
Gillum, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, meanwhile, walked back his concession and fought on with a ferocity that belied the bleak odds he faced in a recount. There have been rallies and vigils, fundraising pitches and defiant calls to action.
Gillum formally conceded Saturday afternoon. And final vote counts in Florida are planned to be announced Sunday, though legal action could prolong the deadline.
But the court action stemming from Gillum’s and Nelson’s recount campaigns could help reverse some of the voting restrictions championed by Republicans. That would put Democrats in a better position the next time a Florida race comes down to a small fraction of a percentage point. The 2020 presidential election could easily be that close here.
“There is a sense among Democratic voters, and in some cases rightfully, that election reforms that get passed help one side, and that is to make it harder for people to vote,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic pollster in Florida. “You start getting to a place where people feel like their vote doesn’t matter because it is already rigged against them. So what do you do? One option is to lean in hard and fight.”
Republicans are equally motivated. “Every day, we are watching Democrats break and stretch the law for the sole purpose of winning, while they attack Republicans for wanting an honest count of legal voters,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote in a piece emailed to supporters.
It is not always clear where voter sympathies lie in the debate over who should be allowed to cast ballots.
Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure this year that restored voting rights for 1.5 million people convicted of felonies who have been banned for life from casting ballots under a state law that Scott aggressively enforced. The measure’s success emboldened Democrats in the recount campaign, which they have framed as being about the rights of voters as much as individual races.
That argument has been even more potent in energizing activists in Georgia, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams finally acknowledged defeat Friday after a bitter battle with Republican Brian Kemp, the secretary of state.
Kemp is an unyielding champion of ballot security measures that have had the practical effect of purging tens of thousands of African Americans from the registration rolls. Democrats charge that Kemp is overseeing an unabashed campaign of voter suppression, and that he used his authority to rig his own race and to perpetuate GOP dominance in a state where demographic shifts threaten the party’s control.
“It led to activists wanting to fight that much harder,” said Dave Karpf, a political scientist at George Washington University who focuses on grassroots movements. “They don’t want to let him walk into the governor’s mansion pretending he didn’t try to rig election in every way he could find for himself. It would be dispiriting if at the end of a campaign where he cut every corner, she just said, ‘I will go home.’”
Abrams’ recount effort has remained a rallying point for Democrats nationally, even as her prospects for victory diminished. Many of those involved in the push were already looking ahead at how the fallout could help realign Georgia and encourage more African Americans and Latinos to vote.
“The fight against voter suppression is so far from over,” said Georgia state Sen. Nikema Williams, a Democrat whose recent arrest at a voting rights protest at the state Capitol sparked outrage among activists nationwide. “This is not just about one election.”