Nearly two decades after the world learned about hanging chads, Florida is under scrutiny again as officials count and recount votes in three statewide races.
Hanging chads are long gone from Florida, but many of the same issues that plagued the state during the 2000 election remain. As officials race to recount ballots, they’ve had to deal with aging election equipment, poor ballot design and accusations of manipulating the election process for partisan gain.
Some of the parallels between the 2000 and 2018 recounts are strikingly similar. The state’s governor again faces accusations of a conflict of interest. (Unlike then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who was the brother of a candidate, Gov. Rick Scott is a candidate himself for Senate.) In Broward County this year, there is speculation that a poorly designed ballot may have led voters to skip voting in the Senate race — which lawyers for Sen. Bill Nelson (D) say could have cost him thousands of votes. The episode echoes the infamous butterfly ballot controversy in Palm Beach County, where a confusing ballot likely hurt Al Gore.
Both recounts involve the actual machinery of the elections. In 2000 antiquated punch card machines produced the chads and election chaos. In 2018 the machines Palm Beach County used to conduct its recount malfunctioned, and it wasn’t able to submit recount results in time to the state. Brenda Snipes, the supervisor of elections in Broward County, has come under scrutiny after her office missed the deadline to submit results to the secretary of state’s office by two minutes, refused to turn over ballot tallies and was slow posting election results.
At the heart of the 2000 election controversy was a dispute over how election officials should judge the intent of a voter if the selection on a ballot was unclear. There were inconsistent standards across the counties. After 2000, the state stopped using punch cards and developed clearer standards for judging voter intent. Officials across the state are now leaning on those new standards as they manually recount ballots from voters who appear to have selected two or more candidates in a race or no candidate at all.
“The fundamental problems have not changed because there’s no will to change them. When winners are elected in a system that works, that’s an incentive not to rock the boat. There’s also not enough resources that a state will devote to election administration,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, who wrote about the 2000 Florida recount in his book The Voting Wars.
“The fundamental problems have not changed because there’s no will to change them.”
Ned Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University, said that after a recount like Florida’s in 2000, there’s a push to fix the specific issues driving the dispute. But partisanship can prevent larger systemic changes to prevent similar meltdowns.
“We’re seeing the problems with faulty technology right now. We haven’t replaced the machines, and Palm Beach can’t finish because it can’t run the machines fast,” said Foley, who wrote Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States. “If we put more money and we didn’t fight over these things so much, we would get better machines. We would have a good process to begin with.”
Hasen and Foley said the most striking difference between 2018 and 2000 was how quickly elected officials like Scott and President Donald Trump were willing to accuse election officials of acting in bad faith. The 2000 election, Foley said, showed Democrats and Republicans that post-election disputes over elections can really matter and pushed them to prepare to go to all out if a race is relatively close.
“The most disturbing element to what I see now compared to 2000 is it seems like we’ve got a deterioration of norms and culture. There’s more accusations about stealing in the context of a senator’s seat and a governor’s seat — important, but it’s not the presidency,” Foley said. “They do fundraising off of this. ... It feeds off of the polarization that occurs off the last two decades, and it feeds the polarization.”
While the approximately 12,600-vote margin between Scott and Nelson is small, given the more than 8 million ballots cast, it’s much bigger than the 537 votes that separated George W. Bush and Gore. If a margin more than 12,000 votes causes so much controversy, it’s difficult to imagine what might happen in 2020.
“If you think about how divided the country is, you think about how polarized things are, when you go to the 2020 election, you can imagine if Trump and his Democratic opponent were within 12,000 votes of each other, how awful this would be,” Hasen said.
“The rhetoric matters for the followers. People are hearing that the election is being stolen,” he added. “They’re not paying attention to the details. They’re going to believe the person who they support.”