Elections

After that embarrassing recount, can Florida regain the public’s trust in elections?

Protesters call for the resignation of Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes on Nov. 11, 2018, at the Broward elections office in Lauderhill.
The 2018 election seemed to prove that Florida, home to the infamous 2000 presidential recount, still hasn’t figured out how to properly run an election.

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The 2018 election seemed to prove that Florida, home to the infamous 2000 presidential recount, still hasn’t figured out how to properly run an election.

But the truth is, the state of Florida doesn’t run the voting process. It merely oversees it.

If the midterm election confirmed anything, it’s that Florida’s secretary of state still struggles to create uniformity among dozens of operations run independently by 67 elected and autonomous election supervisors, and to manage the massive amount of data that streams in on election night. As hours turned to days without declared winners in three statewide races, the state’s inability to explain how many votes had been rejected or even how many votes remained to be counted contributed to allegations of voter fraud, lawsuits and distrust in the basic foundation of democracy.

A single decision made three years earlier — to allow Palm Beach County to use outdated vote-tabulation machines — nearly derailed the entire election.

So, even though who won any particular race is no longer in dispute, the efficacy of the state’s election process remains in doubt. And in order to restore faith in the system, political scientists and election experts believe Florida must improve the transparency and efficiency of the process by getting a better grip at ground level, or risk a higher-profile embarrassment should the 2020 presidential election yield a similarly close vote.

This makes the 2019 legislative session the prime opportunity for the state to get ahead of that, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

Compared with 2000, the 2018 election went much more smoothly, mostly because of the laws put in place after the Bush-Gore recount, she said. But there’s no way any group of people can know exactly what policy needs to be enacted to offset future issues. When those problems do arise, as they did in November, that’s the time to act and address them, she said.

The rising popularity of mail ballots poses a problem for a Florida election system built to handle in-person voting. Other states have fixed this by adopting a vote-at-home model.

“Believe me, we have made a lot of improvements, and Florida continues to make a lot of improvements, but elections are dynamic like society is dynamic,” MacManus said. “You can’t have perfect elections.”

Imperfect Laws

The 2018 election marked the first time that the recount procedures put in place after the 2000 election were tested, so the recount exposed the strengths and flaws of the process. Many of the weaknesses became the subject of lawsuits. One notable suit focused on Florida’s system for curing signature mismatches on absentee ballots. In those cases, if a person’s signature did not match what was on file, a voter had until 5 p.m. on the day before the election to fix it. Yet counties could accept mail-in ballots through 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Aside from the legal question of whether Florida’s process to cure mismatches was constitutional — a federal judge ruled it wasn’t — just pinpointing how many ballots had been rejected due to mismatched signatures proved to be difficult.

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Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, middle, at her offices in Lauderhill as the canvassing board reviews ballots on Nov. 10, 2018. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

After U.S. District Judge Mark Walker posed the question, the state director for the Division of Elections had to poll each county to find out how many provisional and absentee ballots had been rejected for signature mismatches. The state reported at least 3,688 such instances.

Even then the actual number was elusive. The state’s numbers lacked responses from 20 counties, including Miami-Dade and Duval, as counties did not respond to emails before the deadline to get figures in front of the judge. The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times had also been filing records requests for those same numbers and in many instances were provided different numbers than reported by the state.

Though counties are required to report certain information to the state during and after an election, signature mismatches are not among them.

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

“If you don’t have transparency, you don’t have accountability, and if you don’t have accountability, you lose legitimacy,” said University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith.

Yet Florida lawmakers are contemplating a step that would make the process less transparent: Citing concerns about the exposure of voters’ personal information, supervisors of elections have asked legislators to close off public access to the state’s voter file, granting it only to parties and political action committees. If that legislation passes, there would be no way to account for who has been purged from the voter roles, Smith wrote in a recent blog post.

This could compound transparency concerns already raised in the recount. Both Broward and Hillsborough counties failed to send election results to the state at the end of the second deadline to report unofficial results during the recount. Broward had technical difficulties transmitting results. Hillsborough chose not to send them because its recount generated 836 fewer votes in the U.S. Senate race. Under Florida law, if a county was unable to meet the deadline to recount its votes, the count previously submitted to the state was used instead.

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The recount boxes at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Doral on Nov. 18, 2018 Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Bad Information

Broward’s technical error may have saved it some scrutiny, as numbers announced to reporters prior to the transmission error indicated it had not included more than 2,000 ballots. But because those numbers weren’t relayed to the state, Smith said there’s no way for the state or voters to definitively figure out how that happened.

Brenda Snipes, Broward supervisor of elections at the time — who was already under supervision by state observers for prematurely destroying ballots after a 2016 congressional race — initially avoided the media, leaving the question of the shift in votes unanswered. She later said the votes had been misplaced.

In the confusion, many voters wondered whether their ballots had been counted.

“There’s so much variation that equal treatment under the law becomes farcical in Florida,” Smith said. “It’s a technological issue, it’s a staffing issue, it’s a competency issue, but mostly it’s a funding issue.”

Liza McClenaghan, Florida state chair of Common Cause, a voter advocacy group, said she thinks counties should be required to keep track of the number of provisional and absentee ballots being rejected and for what reasons, as well as to increase the amount of time voters have to cure signature mismatches.

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Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, right, and Judge August Bonavita, left, look at provisional ballots in Riviera Beach. Josh Repogle AP

There is also currently no way to ensure that a county has reached out to people whose ballots have a problem that needs to be cured. Keeping such a list would increase transparency and reduce the number of ballots being rejected, she said. And having more information would help voters feel in control.

“They lack the information about how the whole process works until they get a notification that something’s wrong,” she said. “It’s when we have recounts and close elections that people go, ‘Oh, there’s more to it.’ ”

In addition to legislation requiring counties to track and report signature mismatch numbers to the state, MacManus said information about who has voted absentee should also be open.

Currently, the state releases daily reports ahead of every election that list the names of everyone who has voted early. That list, on the state’s Division of Elections website, is open to everyone. A similar list of those who have voted absentee is also compiled, but that is only accessible to the political parties and political action committees.

The list of absentee voters, which details whether a person’s ballot has been received by a county election office and accepted, should be “open to everyone or no one,” MacManus said.

What the state needs, MacManus said, is uniformity in the election system.

But even with information that is supposed to be uniformly reported by every county to the state, enforcement mechanisms are lacking. Supervisors of elections are required to report precinct-level Election Day results to the state every 45 minutes, between the close of polls until all ballots but provisional ones are totaled. Broward complied with the law on election night, but the law does not require regular updates of the total vote-by-mail ballots that have been tallied or remain to be. A day after polls closed, state election officials still wondered how many ballots Broward had yet to count.

Part of the technical difficulties could be offset by requiring tech workers in election offices to be certified in the use of the state’s online portal, MacManus said. By requiring hands-on training, problems sending results to the state — as happened in Broward — could be avoided. Penalties could also then be imposed if counties do not send information as required.

Another way to increase transparency: Require counties to track and report the number of ballots yet to be counted, she said. Both are attainable goals to avoid in future elections the ambiguities of 2018.

“One person one vote. That’s the principle,” she said. “Each of their votes should have equal opportunity to be counted.”

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

This project was produced with the assistance of a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

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.
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.
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