A lot went wrong in Florida’s 2018 election. That may have actually been a good thing

Remember the 2018 Florida recount? Accusations of voter fraud, blown deadlines, lawsuits, conspiracy theories. What if that fiasco was a good thing?

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Florida voting: fixing what’s broken

Florida’s 2018 election and recount fiasco reinforced the state’s reputation as a place where voting is dogged by problems. But it also presented a road map for lawmakers to follow if they want to fix the system before the 2020 presidential election.

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It would have seemed absurd to say it amid all the accusations of voter fraud, blown deadlines and lawsuits, but now that the haze of Florida’s midterm debacle has cleared, the 2018 election fiasco could actually prove to be a good thing for the country’s premier battleground state.

On one hand, nearly two decades after Florida set the bar for election chaos, an unprecedented three statewide recounts showed in November that laws put into place following the infamous 2000 presidential election were, in fact, largely successful. A new and uniform recount system enacted across all 67 counties lent certainty to a previously nebulous and politicized process, and hard deadlines helped keep the election from being decided by the courts.

But Florida’s recount encore also exposed deep flaws that linger in the electoral process, flaws that could undercut the 2020 presidential race should voters in an increasingly gridlocked state remain so evenly divided. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Florida by little more than 1 percentage point in 2016, and no one should be shocked next year if Decision 2020 is within the 0.5 percent margin that triggers yet another recount.

The good news: State lawmakers will have an opportunity over the coming weeks to once again address Florida’s election woes as they meet for their annual legislative session. With the proper adjustments, voters can go to the polls to vote for president next year with more confidence and less chance of once again watching their state become a national punch line.

“What we see as Florida election law is actually a puzzle pieced together. And it isn’t until you have a major election like this and you have multiple close races where the rubber hits the road that you see how these pieces fit together,” said Michael Morley, an assistant law professor specializing in elections at Florida State University.

“There are opportunities for improvement.”

A Miami Herald election postmortem based on dozens of interviews with candidates and experts and thousands of pages of emails, court transcripts and internal election records found that Florida’s voting problems are very real, yet hardly insurmountable.

One of the country’s tightest certification deadlines collided in November with an extremely lengthy ballot and a historic number of mail ballots to overwhelm some of the state’s largest election offices and exacerbate administrative errors. Flawed ballot-design guidelines appear to have resulted in thousands of voters skipping the narrowly decided U.S. Senate race. And loopholes in accountability standards created to regulate a decentralized election system left candidates, state officials and even some election supervisors in the dark on basic information, like how many votes were left to be counted.

Fixing the Problems

The political misinformation campaigns that dogged the election may be largely out of the state’s control. But most of the issues that plagued the 2018 election can be directly addressed through existing technology, new legislation and administrative rule changes.

Judge Betsy Benson, canvassing board chair, left, and Judge Deborah Carpenter-Toye, canvassing board member, examine a damaged ballot as the election recount continues in Broward County on Nov. 14, 2018. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Among the possible changes Florida lawmakers ought to consider:

Amending the state Constitution to extend the amount of time that election offices are given to count ballots. Due to a constitutional requirement that lawmakers convene exactly two weeks after Election Day, Florida currently gives supervisors less than four days to submit unofficial results, another five days to conduct a machine recount and not quite three more days to analyze ballots spit out by machines. Only nine states have quicker certification deadlines, and none in that group has even half the population of Florida.

Miami state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez has filed legislation that would give supervisors more time to count the vote after a recount has been ordered. The state could also propose a 2020 ballot question by issuing a joint resolution to amend the Constitution.

Tightening the laws and rules around the certification of vote tabulation machines for use during elections. The current laws allowed Palm Beach County’s election office to use nine outdated, 11-year-old vote tabulators that were most recently authorized for use back in 2015. Six of them failed, according to then-Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, because they were unable to run multiple recounts simultaneously and had to be run round the clock. The state has since moved to invalidate Palm Beach’s Sequoia 400C machines.

Eliminating the ballot design option that may have resulted in thousands of “undervotes” in Broward County. Former Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes placed the U.S. Senate race below a lengthy row of instructions, against the recommendations of the federal U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The number of non-votes in the race — about 4 percent of all ballots in Broward — was three to four times greater than the state average.

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Broward County was ground zero for election dysfunction. Here’s a breakdown.

Clarifying laws that aim to keep the state abreast of voting totals. Supervisors are required to update precinct results every 45 minutes until all votes have been counted, and detail the number of mail ballots received every morning. But Broward workers went home on election night with 38,000 last-minute mail ballots not yet tabulated, and the state seemed unclear about that number as transmissions came in every few hours over the following days.

Allowing election offices to use new technology that could dramatically cut down on the time required to perform recounts and reduce the likelihood of human error. The Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections has requested that the state allow supervisors to use computer auditing software to conduct recounts with data scoured from digitally scanned ballots rather than forcing them to run paper ballots through the machines again.

Improving the method by which canvassing boards confirm the identity of absentee voters. More than 30,000 mail ballots were rejected during the midterm election under a law requiring that the signature on a ballot envelope “match” a voter’s signature on the voting file — a number larger than the winning margins in races for agriculture commissioner and U.S. Senate. But the local canvassing boards that accept or reject questionable signatures are trained under different standards.

Voters cast their ballots. Miami Herald file photo

New Laws

These changes alone would reduce the chances of consequential problems and lawsuits during the next Florida recount — likely a question of if, not when. And the state’s best opportunity to make those changes may be this year, since any decision to wait until 2020 would make any election legislation a highly politicized proposal with a short turnaround.

So far, few bills that would address the problems of the midterm elections have been filed, although Rodriguez’s bill includes some sweeping changes and the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee is expected to file a bill soon. Offering a bit of conventional wisdom, House Speaker José Oliva said in an interview with the Miami Herald after the recount that 65 of Florida’s 67 county election offices got it right in November.

“My initial impression of what went wrong doesn’t show a lack of laws. What it shows is a disregard for the laws in place,” said Oliva. “What it shows is some level of incompetence. We’ve got to be careful not to change laws for two counties that acted outside of the law.”

Counting the Vote

In terms of accountability, election supervisors in Broward and Palm Beach resigned after being suspended by the governor — actions that would resolve the midterm’s biggest problems for anyone believing that missteps were due to administration and not policy. But even a review of election offices that handled the recount successfully shows that Florida’s laws put unnecessary pressure on the most populous counties, where election offices are already stressed by the requirements of high-turnout elections.

Miami-Dade, for instance, sailed through the election and recount without a hitch. But to avoid catastrophe, Supervisor Christina White ordered a massive number of employees and volunteers to work round the clock, spending $1 million on wages just to count the vote. She began sorting more than 800,000 ballots early in order to separate the ballot pages that would need to be run again in the recount. She paid $62,000 to order five special high-speed tabulation machines from Omaha-based vendor Election Systems & Software, and her staff worked a combined 2,778 overtime hours.

“Voting units are not meant to run 24 hours a day,” White said. “Staff members are not meant to be working 24 hours a day with the level of accuracy that’s being demanded from us with zero tolerance for error. Right?”

At Miami-Dade election headquarters, counting groups monitored by observers check ballots for overvotes and undervotes. Linda Robertson

And that was in a county where things went right.

In Broward, Snipes paid a vendor $180,000 to fly in 20 Election Systems & Software staffers just so they could staff a second 12-hour machine recount shift that allowed her operation to run 24/7. She also brought in an extra high-speed tabulating machine. Still, her makeshift staff misplaced more than 2,000 ballots during the machine recount.

And in Palm Beach County, where the county has since decided to spend $15.7 million on new voting equipment, Bucher didn’t bring in reinforcements. Three days into the recount, she announced that her office had to start counting 175,000 early votes over again after her machines spit out incorrect totals. Bucher blamed overheating for the glitches, although vendor Dominion Voting disputes her account and says they received no service calls to repair issues related to overheating. (No work orders or invoices exist to resolve the finger-pointing.)

Eventually, Bucher threw up her hands in the middle of the recount and said she was in “prayer mode.” She didn’t officially finish counting ballots until the day after Christmas.

This article has been updated to include a reference to Senate Bill 1386, filed Feb. 27 by Miami Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez.

Miami Herald staff writers Sarah Blaskey and Kyra Gurney, and McClatchy DC reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.

This project was produced with the assistance of a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.
David Smiley is a Florida native (yes, they exist) and veteran of South Florida journalism. He’s covered schools, cops and crime, and various city halls, earning awards for stories about municipal pensions and Miami Beach’s police department. He became the Miami Herald’s political reporter in 2018 and covered the midterm elections and recount.
Caitlin Ostroff is a data reporter for McClatchy’s DC Bureau, based at the Miami Herald. She uses data analysis and coding to present and report information as part of the investigative team.