For the second time in twenty years, a major national election outcome hangs in the balance as election officials in Florida count votes, bicker over the counting of the votes and, in some cases, try to prevent the counting of the votes. The stakes are different in 2018 from what they were in 2000. Eighteen years ago, the presidency itself would be determined by whether George W. Bush or Al Gore was awarded Florida’s electoral votes. Now a US Senate seat and the governorship are being contested. That is not the same as the presidency, but with the GOP likely to have a slim majority in the Senate, the difference of one seat there will make a difference. Additionally, given the history of voter suppression in Florida and the potential challenges around the recently passed Amendment Four, which returns voting rights to many felons who have served their time, the difference between a pro-voting rights Democrat and a voter suppression oriented Republican as governor could have a big impact in the 2020 when Florida will again be the country’s biggest swing state.
Given that the same state today is at the center of very similar problems as it was in 2000, complete with questions about ballot design, the question of what the US did to improve its election administration between these two elections is unavoidable. The answer, sadly, is very little. In the weeks and months following the 2000 election, concerns were raised about many problems with our election system including thing like aging voting machines, flawed ballot construction and design and the challenges associated with administering elections through 50 states and thousands of counties. Those were the election related problems in the halcyon days before Russian interference, fake news and Donald Trump, but they were real concerns. The Help Americans Vote Act of 2002 offered some solutions and led some counties and states to modernize their campaign infrastructure, but for the most part the problems remained in place.
Actually, the problems got worse as over the last 18 years key provisions of the Voting Rights Act were weakened in 2013 and many states passed laws making it more difficult for people, generally those who are not white, to exercise their right to vote. The ongoing contretemps about Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election, pushed these homegrown problems aside briefly, but they never really went away and have returned this month.
The failure to solve any election related problems following 2000 can be attributed to the normal political difficulty of solving anything in 21st century American politics as voting issues were quickly pushed into the background by the attacks of September 11th, the Enron collapse, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis of 2008. Those events defined the Bush presidency and its agenda leaving little room for addressing a problem that many felt would just go away if we ignored it long enough.
That assumption was wrong, but perhaps understandable in the context of fast moving politics. The more disturbing developments in Florida is how Republicans more or less across the board have embraced the election fraud narrative, arguing that efforts to count all the votes is prima facie evidence of election fraud. This will raise questions about the outcome of the election if Democrats Ben Nelson for Senate and Andrew Gillum win narrow victories, something that is still possible.
As recently as October 2016, the idea of not accepting election outcomes after a defeat was a fringe political idea that was associated with few major politicians other than Donald Trump. The White House has taken the position regarding the Florida that counting all the votes would constitute vote fraud and that Repubilcans Rick Scott and Ron de Santis should be declared winners, but this is no longer fringe idea. Marco Rubio, Florida’s other Senator is a conservative Republican very much in the mainstream of his party. Since the polls closed last week, Rubio’s Tweets and public statements have consistently accused Democrats of trying to steal the election, raised questions about why new votes are being counted while not mentioning things like Florida laws that allow votes that arrive after Election Day to be counted. Rubio has also spread rumors and asserted that anything short of Republican victories would be evidence of election fraud.
What is happening in Florida should be of grave concern to every American who believes in democracy-and not just because it is important who wins those individual races. This is a continuation of the Republican policy of raising questions about election outcomes with which they do not agree. This began with Trump in 2016, was also seen in the special election in Alabama in 2017 and has now become another Republican talking point-one which is gaining support from Republicans at all levels and could have a very profound effect on the next election. By 2020, if Donald Trump loses it is very possible that these kinds of doubts will be used not to change the outcome of a handful of races, but to help a discredited and defeated man remain in the White House.
Photo: cc/The White House