By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — After months of mudslinging, weeks of court wrangling and days of ballot counting that again landed Florida in an unwelcome national spotlight, a state panel matter-of-factly finalized the 2018 election results in a five-minute meeting Tuesday.
The certification came on time, but problems with other election-related deadlines in two large, heavily Democratic counties — Palm Beach and Broward — are prompting county supervisors and legislative leaders to ponder possible solutions to the state’s ballot-box woes.
Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher blamed mechanical failures for missing deadlines for recounts ordered in statewide races. Broward County Supervisor Brenda Snipes, meanwhile, experienced myriad problems, including failing — by two minutes — to meet a Thursday deadline for a machine recount in Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s race against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Scott — who eventually emerged the victor in the Senate race — and other Republicans castigated Snipes and Bucher for their handling of the recount, accusing the elections chiefs of incompetence and outright fraud. Snipes on Sunday submitted her resignation to Scott.
But other county supervisors say this year’s three statewide recounts — the first since Florida law was changed after the 2000 presidential recount — show that the system generally worked well.
“Clearly, being the first test of the system for a statewide recount, there are some things that need to be tweaked,” Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux, the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview. “There’s room for improvement, especially as it relates to the deadlines.”
Floridians cast more than 8.2 million ballots through the mail, at early voting sites or on Election Day, according to the state Division of Elections website. In addition to a recount in the U.S. Senate race, recounts were required because of slim margins in the races for governor and agriculture commissioner.
The state Elections Canvassing Commission on Tuesday quickly certified the results of the elections, two days after results of manual recounts were submitted in the U.S. Senate and agriculture-commissioner races. The governor’s race required a machine recount but did not go to a manual, or hand, recount.
In 2000, Florida law did not require statewide recounts, meaning only some counties conducted recounts and, because they had different types of voting machines, the counties used different recount methods. The law was changed in 2001, but the crafters never envisioned the state would undergo three recounts at once, Lux said.
Deadlines for the manual and machine recounts included in state law are built around a mandate that legislators be seated two weeks after the general election — which was Tuesday this year. Also, the deadlines are built around an early December deadline for the Electoral College to vote on the results of presidential elections.
State lawmakers might consider pushing back deadlines to give larger counties more time to tabulate absentee ballots and conduct recounts, Lux and several other elections supervisors suggested during interviews with the News Service this week.
“The discussion has to be, did we see actual problems, or did we see problems that were perceived as problems based on a particular candidate or a particular campaign seeing something that was not going their way, or that was perceived as not going their way,” Lux said. “There’s a huge difference.”
The state also may want to revisit deadlines for mail-in ballots, Lux said. Under current law, mail-in ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day. But overseas ballots postmarked by Election Day can be counted up to 10 days following the election. The mail-in ballot deadline was the subject of one of several lawsuits filed by Democrats in the days following the Nov. 6 election. Other states allow up to 10 days after the election for mail-in ballots to be counted.
Florida could consider allowing mail-in ballots to be counted if they are postmarked before Election Day and received by elections offices within two days after the election, Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles said. That’s the same amount of time allowed for voters who cast provisional ballots to provide documentation to elections offices, Cowles said.
“Our U.S. postal service is not what it used to be,” Cowles said. “I can’t tell you the number of ballots that people put in the mail on Tuesday, thinking they’re still going to count.”
And lawmakers may want to authorize the use of vote centers, Lux proposed. The “mega-precincts” could help eliminate the need for provisional ballots, which are given to voters whose identities or other information cannot be confirmed on Election Day. Critics say minority voters, as well as young or old voters, are more likely to have their provisional ballots tossed.
“Imagine a world where everyone is using some version of a vote center instead of precinct-based voting on Election Day, and you could go to any one of them. You would never find yourself in the wrong precinct. Bam. You’ve just eliminated all of the provisional ballots that are voted by people for being in the wrong precinct,” Lux said.
Elections chiefs also cautioned against basing changes to state laws on hiccups in this year’s election.
“I’m concerned that the Legislature is going to jump on this and overreact. I think that, for the most part, the process worked the way it was supposed to. We’re not supposed to have instant results. When you have a close race, we need to methodically review every ballot,” Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards, a former state representative, said.
Many of the county supervisors lamented that the state’s 67 elections chiefs are being viewed with the same contempt as the isolated areas that experienced high-profile problems.
“Clearly there were issues in the counties that were reported, but I think we need to remember, in totality, we got it right,” said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, adding that the supervisors and their staff “work tirelessly” in the months leading up to the August primary.
The hectic pace continues until after recounts are completed following the general election.
“It’s not fair to the clear majority of supervisor of election offices that went above and beyond,” Corley said. “To be dragged down with a perception of the whole state having issues, it’s not accurate. It’s not fair.”
Edwards also said she wished politicians and the public would tone down the rhetoric in the days following an election.
“I think the folks that were claiming fraud knew darn well, and had plenty of lawyers to explain to them the process, that an election takes a couple of days,” Edwards said. “I think they knew it. And I think it was a political strategy to try to condemn the process for their own political gains.”
Given the razor-thin margins that have become the norm in Florida elections, the state should be prepared to be the focus of scrutiny, even in years like 2018 that don’t involve presidential contests.
“When you’re the largest battleground state in the nation and all the eyes are going to be on Florida forever, there’s no such thing as a low-key midterm,” Corley said.