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Florida Recount Recap: Untangling the Web of Partisan Talking Points

Florida Recount Recap: Untangling the Web of Partisan Talking Points

Much to the dismay of election officials across the state, the 2018 midterms solidified Florida’s reputation as an electoral troublemaker. Florida acquired that reputation during the fiasco that was the 2000 election recounts. After the landmark election exposed fundamental flaws in Florida’s electoral infrastructure, one might have expected election officials to have taken steps to remedy the situation and ensure that such a spectacular display of ineptitude could not have occurred again in the future. But here we are again, 18 years later, having just suffered through another round of Florida recount madness. Mercifully, there were no ‘hanging chads’ this year. But there were other problems, some that seem eminently fixable, others less so. Nevertheless, they must all be addressed before the 2020 elections in order to avoid a repeat of the 2000 election recount debacle. 

The stakes may not be as high in Senate and Gubernatorial races as they are in a Presidential election, but something more fundamental is at risk today than was at risk a generation ago. The very notion of truth itself and our ability to discover it has come under attack in recent years. As journalists and social media corporations deal with the onslaught of fake news and a president who sees traditional reporting as a menace to society, the last thing we need is an electoral system that cannot tell us who won an election. We must be able to trust our recount systems to tell us the truth about the will of the people. Like the scientific method, democratic elections are in principle based on a version of empiricism that must be defended by those who seek to live in an honest, fair, and - above all - fact-based society. If the truth is left undecided by an objective and socially agreed upon practice such as election recounts, then there exists the possibility that the democratic process could be co-opted by bad actors who wish to further their own aims instead of the common good.

There is no doubt that such bad actors are ready and waiting to co-opt the recount process. One need look no further than the partisan rhetoric that began streaming out of both camps as the recounts got underway. Sen. Ted Cruz, having just won his own hotly contested race in Texas, went on Face The Nation to send a warning to the public regarding the Florida recounts, saying, “any time you have a recount, you have an invitation for people to violate the law and advance their partisans.” He then went on to make the partisan claim that Democrats use recounts to win elections. Senator Cruz may not have caught the hypocrisy of that series of statements, but the truth behind his first assertion regarding partisanship and recounts would be demonstrated in Florida over the following days as partisans on both sides bickered over what should have been a low key bureaucratic process.

One of the main flashpoints in the Florida recount was the recount in Broward County. Broward County is one of the three counties that compose the Miami metropolitan area and the second most populous county in Florida. As a result, scrutiny of the recounts in this county was particularly fierce, and partisans immediately began trying to shape the narrative around the recounts to suit themselves. In the Senate race, Gov. Rick Scott, the Republican nominee claimed that his Democratic rival Bill Nelson had conspired to “commit fraud to try to win this election” only four days into the recounts. He then sued the state of Florida to hand over voting machines and ballots to law enforcement, which, being the Governor, meant himself. The state Democratic party promptly issued a response with an even more outlandish assertion, accusing Scott of acting like a strongman and trying to turn Florida into a Banana Republic: "Rick Scott is doing his best to impersonate Latin American dictators who have overthrown Democracies in Venezuela and Cuba. The Governor is using his position to consolidate power by cutting at the very core of our Democracy." 

As Trigtent reported, circuit judge Jack Tutor, who was in charge of the proceedings, rejected Scotts suit, ruling that there was no evidence of voter fraud, saying, "I am urging, because of the highly public nature of this case, to ramp down the rhetoric. If someone in this lawsuit or someone in this county has evidence of voter fraud or irregularities, they should report it to local law enforcement. Everything lawyers are saying out there is being beamed out all over the country."

Should anyone claim that partisan bickering of this sort does not have an influence on recounts, we need only point to the incontrovertible evidence that cynical partisans disrupted the 2000 Florida recounts and effectively disenfranchised every voter who participated in that election. During what became known as the Brooks Brothers Riot, a group of Republican activists shut down the recount process in Miami-Dade County after rumors spread that election officials were removing ballots from the room where the recount was being performed. The GOP operatives, acting on this false information, stormed the recount offices and prevented the process from moving forward, making it impossible for the recount to be performed by the court-ordered deadline. The action was taken after New York Rep. John Sweeney heard the rumors and said, “Shut it down.” For his involvement, President Bush rewarded him with the nickname “Congressman Kick-ass.” By the time that it became clear that Al Gore would have won the presidency had the recount been allow to move forward, he had already conceded the race to George Bush.

Events like these illustrate the danger of letting the delicate process of recounts be influenced by partisan rancor. This is equally true when evaluating where election systems went wrong and why recount infrastructure failed. The question “why did Florida’s recount system fail yet again” must be answered with level headed objectivity if we want to make the necessary repairs before the 2020 elections. Partisanship has at best no positive influence on investigations into the failure of the recount and the evaluation of proposed remedies. At worst, partisans will muddy the waters with false accusations and disingenuous appeals to common decency that, with enough time and repetition, will sow suspicion and doubt in the entire election system among the populace. When voters lose faith in the democratic process and those who are in charge of its administration, there is no telling what madness will reign. That is why it is especially important to remain calm and objective now as we look back at this year’s recounts in Florida and take stock.

There are many structural issues with the recount system in Florida that need to be examined in an environment quarantined from biased partisanship. For instance, even before the recounts were triggered, there were warning sign that something was amiss in Broward County. The political polling analytics group FiveThirtyEight noticed that the votes tabulated in Broward County exhibited “a high rate of something called “undervoting,” or not voting in all the races on the ballot.” That means that voters were submitting ballots where they had voted on one race, in this case the Gubernatorial race, but not other races on that same ballot, in this case the Senate race. The numbers were staggering. Over 26,000 ballots exhibited undervoting, which would have been enough votes to overcome Scott’s lead on Nelson had those ballots gone in favor of the Democrats, which stood at just 25,920 votes as of 24 hours after polls had closed. Instead, no votes could not be tallied for either candidate on those ballots. Immediately, and with nervous references to the infamous Palm Beach butterfly ballots of the 2000 election, attention turned to the ballot itself. 

Sure enough, the design of the ballot had apparently been so confusing that many voters most likely missed the section where they were asked to vote on the Senate race. The problem could be traced to the fact the ballot included translations in three languages. The unusually long instructions on the left side pushed the Senate race question down into the bottom left corner. Many voters likely missed the senate question, thinking it was part of the instructional section. 

According to the Tampa Bay Times, many voters reported corroborating stories of ballot confusion. "I scoured through the ballot and found I had not selected a senate candidate," said Jason Englund, as he was about to send in his absentee ballot. Thankfully, he caught the oversight before sealing the envelope, but he added, "I guess I'm not the only one who had problems locating it."

Given that ballot design was a problem in 2000 and again in 2018, one might wonder why this is a persistent issue. We know it is a problem, so why hasn’t it been fixed? Is there no one in the election administration with expertise in designing ballots? “Most of the time, no, the counties don't have a design person there,” said Whitney Quesenbery, co-director of the Center for Civic Design, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that looks at ballot design. “I'm sure you know that all local government works on a shoestring these days because we've cut the budgets to the bone. They don't have those resources and they have to do this work very quickly because the time between the final candidate filing and when those first ballots have to go out to overseas voters is very fast.”

The lack of resources and properly trained staff is a major problem that needs to be addressed by state and county legislatures. If Florida does not provide election administrations in each county with the training and resources they need to properly conduct an election, then systemic failures like those seen with the ballot will be inevitable. But the ballot was not the only such systemic failure. As NPR reported, “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, a veteran of the 2000 election recounts, resigned soon after the recounts were over, but the fact that she had been allowed to continue to lead the election administration for so long even after the failures of the 2000 recounts in unconscionable. Such ineptitude must not be allowed to continue in Broward County, and while the departure of Brenda Snipes is a good first step, the rest of the administration must be overhauled to make sure the administrators do their jobs properly. 

Personnel are not the only things that need to be updated in Florida, however. The recounts in Palm Beach were again troubled by shoddy materials, although not by butterfly ballots, as was the case in 2000. This time, decades-old ballot-counting machines overheated, and 175,000 votes had to be recounted. An entire day’s work was lost while mechanics were flown in to fix the aging machines. While this situation is an improvement over the ballots and machines that caused so much trouble during the 2000 election recounts, the fact that the ballot-counting machines had not been overhauled in more than a decade meant that the recount was unnecessarily delayed and resources were wasted for avoidable reasons. It is unclear whether or not the machines had been tested before being put into use or maintained properly over the years. But the fact that there were no mechanics on hand in case something went wrong was a sign that the proper maintenance and care that the machines required had not been performed recently.

All of this waste and lost time increases the cost of administering elections and puts pressure on officials to end recounts as quickly as possible. Recounts are already very costly for taxpayers. While it is still too early to know the total cost of the recounts, initial estimates put the number in the millions. The cost of the recounts in Lee County alone was around $500,000, and there are several other counties of similar size that are likely to have similar totals. The total cost of the recount statewide is likely to total be astronomical in comparison to county budgets. Peter Bergerson, a FGCU Political Professor, had the following take: “My guess it will be in the millions, ten million.” He went on to explain that the counties are unlikely to have budgeted for recounts, let alone the three simultaneous recounts that occurred this year. If the counties cannot come up with the money, then the state may have to cover the cost.

After the cost of the recount has been covered, it is unclear where the money for improvements will come from. There are very few incentives for county-level legislators and county commissioners to prepare for events that might not happen. As a result, the financial pressure on the election administration is immense, and they are often forced to operate with inadequate funding and cut costs where they can. With budgets tightened and outside sources of funding unavailable, persuading reluctant officials to make changes becomes less likely.

Adding to this reluctance is the growing realization that recounts, while necessary for the protection of fair and open elections, have historically had very little impact in the overall outcomes of the elections where they have occurred. Rarely do recounts reverse the initial outcome of an election. According to analysis done by fairvote.org, out of the 4687 statewide recounts that occurred across the country between the years 2000 and 2015, only 3 reversed the initial outcome, and only 15 were deemed ‘consequential,’ namely that the original victory margin was extremely close (not more than .15%, which is well under the .5% margin needed to trigger a machine recount and .25% margin needed to trigger a manual recount). Those odds make it extremely unlikely that a recount will have any impact at all, despite the millions of dollars spent on ensuring the sanctity of the recount process. With those kinds of numbers determining state and county budgets, it is easy to see why some officials would be reluctant to focus on properly funding recounts regardless of how necessary they are for our democracy.

The outlook only grows dimmer when you look at the theoretical underpinnings of recounts and the statistical likelihood that they will be accurate. In his 2010 book, “Proofiness: How You’re Being Fooled By The Numbers,” Charles Seife, a mathematician and Professor of Journalism at New York University, takes aim at election recounts and their supposed ability to give us definitive resolutions to electoral contests. As Seife points out, every measurement process has a margin of error no matter what it is. Temperature, weather, molecules, and voting results all have margins of error. Recounts often have fairly large margins of error. For instance, Seife takes a look at the 2008 Minnesota Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken and the recount that occurred after an astonishingly close outcome. The winner, he claims, should have been decided by a coin flip (according to state law), since the observed errors in counting the votes were always much larger than the number of votes (roughly 200 to 300) separating the two candidates. Another way of putting it is this: if the recount results said that Al Franken won by 200 votes, plus or minus 300 votes, then the recount result fell within the margin of error for the recount process and should not have been relied upon to establish the outcome of the election. That means that the recount process was not effective in that case.

While Seife does not argue that we should not have recounts at all, he does want the public to be more careful when looking at recount results. There are different ways to count votes, and each way has a different error rate (i.e., each way of counting makes mistakes more or less frequently than other ways of counting). Machine recounts have a higher error rates than manual recounts by hand, which is why the law requires a manual recount when a machine recount returns a result indicating that one candidate received less than .25% of the vote. However, in cases where the hand recount returns a result that is truly tied, then, in Florida, the winner is determined by lot. Seife argues that recounts by hand have a margin of error, and that a result that looks like it is in favor of one candidate might actually be a tie from a technical standpoint. 

None of this is good news for election officials who are trying to determine the best way to fix the recount system in Florida. With so many obstacles to overcome, from broken machines and poorly trained staff to budget constraints and mathematical uncertainties, it is not clear how officials will be able to make the reforms that need to be made before 2020. But one thing is clear: none of these systematic problems with the recount have anything to do with partisan politics, and introducing partisanship into this mess only deepens the quagmire. If we want to protect fair and open elections, we must not allow partisanship to get in the way of administering them. That is true both during and after a recount.

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