Ballot Design Probably Doomed Florida Democrat in Recount
A striking parallel to the 2000 Florida Gore vs. Bush presidential election crisis.
Last week, Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum was the first to fall. A mere 33,584 votes (.41%) separated Gillum from Republican candidate Ron DeSantis, mandating a machine recount. DeSantis held.
On Sunday, Nov. 18, Gov. Rick Scott won his bid to become Florida’s junior Senator after a manual recount required by state law showed incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson still trailing Scott by 10,033 votes out of more than 8.1 million cast. Nelson conceded.
This resounding thud to a 12-day raucous recount that had Florida Republicans and President Trump questioning the legitimacy of a bedrock to our democracy had all the makings of a reprise of the 2000 presidential election crisis that pitted Al Gore vs. George W. Bush. It turned out to deliver one promising parallel.
It Was the Ballot, Not the Machines
In Broward County, Florida, where Democrats typically out-perform Republicans by margins of two to one, there were approximately 30,000 “undervotes” of the Senate race compared to the gubernatorial race. Democrat Nelson’s only hope was that the undervotes had been misread by a scanner.
They had not. It was simply poor ballot design, and Nelson’s chances went from slim to none. It seems that the selection box to vote for Senator was just difficult to find. That’s a tough way to lose an election.
Going back to the 2000 election, there was a similar occurrence in Palm Beach County, Florida.
On Wednesday morning, November 8, 2000, Americans woke up to the news that the presidential election was too close to call a day after the polls had closed. It had all come down to Florida. A preliminary final count had Bush ahead of Gore by 1,784 votes, one hundredth of one percent of the votes cast in Florida. That number would eventually shrink to a mere 537 votes.
Democrats were particularly concerned about the layout of the presidential ballot in Palm Beach County, Florida. Although he hadn’t even made a campaign stop in the staunchly Democratic county, archconservative Pat Buchanan, representing the Reform Party, tallied 3,704 votes…nearly 2,700 more votes than Buchanan received in any other Florida county. (The Palm Beach County ballot design was not used in any other Florida county.)
Further, more than 29,000 ballots in Palm Beach County were excluded–thrown out–because they contained votes for more than one presidential candidate. Lawsuits flew from Palm Beach County residents who thought they had mistakenly voted for a candidate to the right of Attila the Hun.
It was estimated that if Gore had received just 10% of questionable votes, he would have defeated Bush in Florida and captured the state’s 25 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
You know the rest: the US Supreme Court stopped the recount and George W. Bush became our 41st president. Significantly, Al Gore stoically accepted the decision and quietly exited the spotlight.
The Decline of Civility
President Trump’s words, “An honest count is no longer possible in Florida,” resonated with Rick Scott, who suggested law enforcement be sent to county election boards to monitor the recount and impound the machines when not in use. (His request was denied.) Scott said of his Democratic opponent, “He’s trying to commit fraud to win the election. Bill Nelson’s a sore loser.”
Nonsense. The state’s law enforcement arm and election monitors found no evidence of wrong-doing or foul play. News Director Rob Lorei, of Tampa, Florida’s WMNF-FM, emailed this observation:
Recount problems have to do with the large number of mail-in ballots, which puts a strain on staff and equipment. There are so many mail-in ballots that counting machines in several counties were overheated. That’s not too surprising since many of those machines are a decade old. The election laws written post-2000 need to be updated to ensure that every valid ballot is counted.
The Florida recount and other election infrastructure irregularities should be a clarion call to activists everywhere. The 2020 presidential election will be a landmark for the fate of American democracy. We need to get it right.