With statewide recounts underway in three nail-biting elections in Florida — U.S. senator, governor and state agriculture commissioner — it might be some time before we learn the winners — and the whiners.
But as this process churns on, let's do one thing: bury the ghosts of the 2000 Bush v. Gore election.
Florida is not a banana republic, despite the humorless attempts of late-night comedians, and changes made since the days of hanging and pregnant chads have improved our elections.
In 2013, Lynne Holt of the Reubin O’D. Askew Institute on Politics and Society at the University of Florida, noted that after the 2000 election debacle Florida and its counties spent millions of dollars to upgrade equipment.
The state also moved toward standardizing ballots statewide, created provisional ballots, implemented efforts to improve voter education and poll worker training, established a statewide database of registered voters, mandated early voting in all counties, broadened use of mail-in ballots and upgraded access for handicapped voters. As a result, Holt noted, Florida had "made substantial progress in modernizing its election system."
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, believes that effort was evident this year.
"Florida definitely has come a long way since 2000. I would go so far as to say we are one of the better states when it comes to the core of election administration: the casting and counting of ballots accurately and in a timely manner," he told us in an email. "Legislators, the Division of Elections, and supervisors of elections have made reform and improvement an important priority and have largely succeeded. The problems that have arisen are largely from unforeseen or changing technology and voter preferences — and most importantly, from the fact that humans are in charge of all these different systems, and humans make mistakes."
Besides standardized methods of crafting ballots, managing recounts and reviewing contested ballots, Jewett maintains Florida utilizes the "best way to cast and count ballots": optical-scan systems that allow people to fix their ballot when voting in person.
"Most elections have gone very well over the past decade when it comes to actually casting and counting ballots," he notes. He points to a University of South Florida survey that has found a majority of Floridians rank "election administration" as excellent or good. "Voters give strong marks for making voting convenient, providing highly dependable election equipment and informing citizens about election laws and procedures," he says.
"That does not mean everything is perfect. Voting reform is an ongoing process," he adds. But, "the vast majority of our counties (65 out 67) did a fine job in helping voters cast ballots and accurately and quickly counting ballots. We had two counties with problems, but it does not take away from the fact that Florida has reformed itself quite a bit since 2000 and that almost all counties did a great job."
Jewett is correct, and his point must be acknowledged before we talk ourselves into a crisis of confidence in yet another institution.
By and large, the problems that plagued the 2000 election have not returned in 18 years. When they did this time, they were confined to Broward and Palm Beach counties, and were instigated by the debatable competence of election officials there.
Still, those officials, despite their history of problematic vote tallying, don't deserve all the blame. Voters also bear some responsibility, whether because of ignorance or malice. Take Polk County, for example.
Elections Supervisor Lori Edwards told us that Polk's Canvassing Board rejected 253 provisional ballots. The bulk of them — 194 — were tossed because those voters were not registered or had registered after deadline to vote on Nov. 6, which was about a month earlier. Thirty people voted at the wrong precinct, while 14 were registered in another Florida county and refused to switch to Polk. Six had already voted by mail and one more had done so through early voting. Five failed to sign their envelopes, leaving officials no way to verify their signatures. Three had no identification and their signatures did not match those on file.
Voting is not rocket science, and voters cannot, and should not, expect their ballots to count if they don't keep their information current, if they show up at the wrong precinct, if they "forget" they voted prior to Election Day, or if they didn't properly complete the ballot.
Meanwhile, with two exceptions, election officials throughout Florida, including in the hurricane-stricken Panhandle, made things go as smoothly and as accurately as possible.
Realize that voting will never be foolproof, but most of Florida is significantly closer to that standard today than it was 18 years ago.