Florida’s Long, Long History of Election Woes

(CN) – Court battles, recounts, partisan calls of election fraud – all par for the course in Florida’s particular brand of election politics.

Ten days after the midterm elections and the nation is once again fixated on Florida’s inability to call elections on time.

Florida made history on Thursday after Secretary of State Ken Detzner ordered a manual recount in the races for Senate and state agriculture commissioner. But contentious elections are nothing new for Florida.

One can go all the way back to the presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden in 1876. On election night, the New York Tribune called the race for Tilden, a New York Democrat who led in the popular vote and Electoral College. But 20 votes from four states – Louisiana, South Carolina, Oregon and yes, Florida – were disputed. The campaigns alleged election fraud and disenfranchisement of black voters.

The quarrel led to the formation of a commission made up of five senators, five house representatives and five Supreme Court justices, which met for nine days of hearings, according to the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library.  Representatives for each candidate submitted their election results for Florida first, as each state was decided alphabetically.

The commission voted along party lines and gave Florida’s electoral votes to Hayes. That early decision for Florida’s electoral votes virtually settled the election, which was officially decided just two days before the inauguration.

A painting of the scene by artist Cornelia Fassett, “The Florida Case Before the Electoral Commission”, still hangs on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol building.

Then there’s the infamous 2000 presidential election and the resulting Supreme Court case that declared George W. Bush the 43rd president.

One of the many problems with that contentious race was ballot design.

The “butterfly ballot” was a punch card ballot that confused some voters and led to 2,800 votes inadvertently cast for Pat Buchanan, according to the Palm Beach Post. The ballot also caused many “over” votes, which later invalidated. Nearly a quarter of the county’s ballots were tossed out.

In nearby Broward County, more ballots were invalidated due to “hanging chads,” in which a voter’s selections were not clearly punched through.

Broward and Palm Beach counties are at the center of this election, too. And, once again, the design of the ballot may have played a part.

In Broward County, the Senate race was at the bottom of the first column under the ballot’s instructions — printed in English, Spanish and Creole — while the governor’s race was at the top of the second column. That could account for the disparity between votes cast for each race, which Nelson’s attorneys have pounced on as evidence of “undervoting.”

“In my academic opinion, I think it is definitely a flaw in the way the ballot was designed,” said Kathryn DePalo, a Broward resident who teaches in Florida International University’s Department of Politics and International Relations. “Most people, especially first time voters, were more interested in [the governor’s] race anyway, so they might not have realized that they missed the Senate race.”

DePalo, a Broward County resident who has managed a handful of countywide campaigns, said the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office has been embroiled in controversy since the 2000 elections.

“I think the mismanagement of that office almost seems endemic to what’s going on,” she said.

In 2016, the elections department sent out incomplete mail-in ballots. Lawsuits filed after that election also accused the office of opening mail-in ballots in private and illegally destroying ballots prematurely. In 2012, nearly 1,000 ballots were found uncounted in an elections department warehouse.

Heading up the elections department is Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, who is facing calls from Republicans and Democrats to resign. Snipes took over the job in 2003 after the previous supervisor of elections was removed for mismanagement. She’s an appointee of former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

If history is any indication, election reforms will be front and center when the Florida Legislature convenes next year. After 2000 election, lawmakers instituted changes such as abandoning punch cards and replacing them with optical scanners.

Dave O’Brien, staff attorney for FairVote, a non-partisan group that researches elections, said Florida needs “clear and consistent standards.”

“Florida seems to be a county-by-county patchwork of laws and practices,” he said by email. “In fact, the main issue in Bush v. Gore all those years ago was that the differing recount standards varying by county were an equal protection violation.”

He also pointed to the lack of funding for county election departments, some of which still use machines purchased after the 2000 election. Earlier this week, machines in Palm Beach County overheated and wasted a day’s worth of work.

O’Brien said the state may want to look at more uniform ballots and allowing absentee ballots that are postmarked by Election Day rather than received by that time.

“Florida law seems unusually rigid and harsh when it comes to many aspects of elections,” he said. “It seems like much of the relevant law is interested more in getting things over with as quickly as possible rather than making sure votes are counted fairly and accurately.”

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