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Election Season, Florida Style

Florida election Diebold ballot counter in 2006
photo by Josh Hallett

I really like living in Florida. I happen to live in Broward County, which some people are calling “the Florida of Florida.”

I will concede that sometimes it can be too much of a good thing. This, by the way, may make me the only Floridian willing to concede anything at the moment. But this is a place that works best when you keep a sense of humor about it.

Life in Florida is usually very pleasant, which is why so many people live here. But when it isn’t pleasant, it can get a little weird or even dangerous – sometimes both. I am thinking of hurricanes, but also the bumper-to-bumper traffic that still moves at 80 miles per hour on our highways.

Our elections are not physically dangerous (not often, anyway), but at least they aren’t boring. Why vote in places like New York or Oklahoma, where the outcome is virtually never in doubt, when you can cast your ballot and then watch the seasons change (sort of) as you await the results?

In 2000 this state decided a presidential election by a margin smaller than the attendance at a weekday afternoon Marlins game. Just last week – although it feels like a lot longer – a race for the state House of Representatives in Palm Beach County was apparently determined by 37 votes out of the more than 78,000 that were cast. Of course, nothing has been determined at all, because we’re still counting votes in Florida. And counting them again, over and over. We are counting them in the race for governor, for U.S. senator and for the state agriculture commissioner, which is an oddly prominent job down here considering that we have four major urban centers and the nation’s third-biggest population.

President Donald Trump has already accused Broward’s elections supervisor, Brenda Snipes, and her team of trying to steal the election for Democrats by “finding votes out of nowhere.” The president ought to know better. Just as no evidence has emerged of collusion between Russian operatives and his own 2016 presidential campaign, no substantive evidence of officially sanctioned fraud in Snipes’ shop has emerged in this election.

Our liberal-leaning South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper opined that Snipes and her department have such a well-established record of incompetence that they could not have pulled off the fraud that the president alleged even if they had wanted to. That’s a Florida defense if ever I heard one.

Snipes may soon be out of a job anyway. She is already talking about not running again in 2020, when she would be up for her fourth term, but it seems likely that either current Gov. Rick Scott or whoever emerges as his successor will remove her from office much earlier than that. Snipes will have come full circle, having been appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003 to replace a predecessor he discharged for incompetence. Bush is now among those calling for Snipes’ departure.

Elections have rules. Here in Florida, the rule is that elections supervisors keep the public informed of how many ballots have been cast and counted, and that the initial count be complete within about four days after the election, except for overseas and military mail-ins, which get extra time. Then, if a particular race is within one-half percentage point, there is a machine recount in which all the ballots are fed into the counting machines again. If the result of that recount is within one-quarter of a percentage point, a further manual recount is conducted, focusing on ballots where the machines were unable to determine a clear choice on the part of the voter.

We have 67 counties in Florida, ranging from tiny rural ones to Miami-Dade, the largest. In the recent midterm, 65 of those counties – all of the small ones, right up to Miami-Dade – had no trouble meeting the deadlines and following virtually all the rules. (One small jurisdiction, Bay County in the Panhandle, improperly allowed about 150 votes to be cast by fax or email by residents who were displaced by a recent hurricane. It was a humanitarian gesture, but not allowed under the rules.)

In just two counties – Broward and our northern neighbor, Palm Beach – the rules proved to be too much to handle. Broward officials, led by Snipes, brought the election’s integrity into question by initially refusing to say how many ballots had been cast, and by operating a webpage that confused ballots cast with ballots counted. Thus, as more votes were counted over a period of days following the election, the number cast seemed to be rising too – raising suspicions that the heavily Democratic county was manufacturing votes or permitting late ballots to count, to the benefit of that party’s candidates. When a machine recount was ordered in the races for governor, U.S. senator and state agriculture secretary, it took Broward almost two days to get itself organized and even begin the recount; bigger Miami-Dade got half the votes recounted in the first day.

In Palm Beach County, Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher asserted to the media that her team could not possibly recount all the votes in all three races by the statutory deadline, which was today. That made Palm Beach the only incapable county among the 67. This apparently was enough to convince a judge in the state capital, Tallahassee, to extend the machine recount deadline by five days. The order was just coming down as I drafted this post; in less than two hours it was made moot, when Republicans had the case transferred from state court to federal. Stay tuned.

The first significant cold front of the season is forecast to come through Broward County shortly. By this weekend, daytime temperatures will have crashed into the 70s, and we will have to break out our autumn clothing – around here that’s T-shirts over our swimsuits – and turn on the pool heaters. With Election Day races still to be decided, it’s going to really feel like fall.

Maybe that’s a little too much Florida for your taste. But a real Floridian might ask: What’s not to like about that?

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