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Where’s the drama? Not in Florida, and that’s fine with elections officials

As other states — Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia — find themselves under the national glare as they finish counting mail ballots, Florida officials are exchanging congratulatory tweets. What happened?
Voters wait in line to cast their ballot after the doors open at the Thomas "Jet" Jackson Recreation Center, 1000 28th St. S. in St. Petersburg, on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.
Voters wait in line to cast their ballot after the doors open at the Thomas "Jet" Jackson Recreation Center, 1000 28th St. S. in St. Petersburg, on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 6, 2020
Updated Nov. 6, 2020

Thanks in part to the tumultuous 2000 presidential election of Bush v. Gore, the Sunshine State has long been — often unfairly, sometimes deservedly so — a punchline or cautionary tale of election woes.

But in this year’s presidential race, voting ran smoothly in Florida’s 67 counties. With 29 key electoral votes up for grabs in a fraught election, Florida’s counties tabulated and shared results within hours after the polls closed.

As other states — Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia — found themselves under the national glare and mounting partisan pressure as they tabulated results, Florida officials exchanged congratulatory tweets.

“Florida is a model for the rest of the nation to follow,” Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted Wednesday afternoon, thanking elections officials and poll workers for their hard work.

Florida’s elections rules, many created after the 2000 meltdown, put officials in prime position to conduct a presidential election during a pandemic.

Elections officials and voters were more accustomed to mail ballots and early voting. Nine million of Florida’s 11 million votes were cast early, so lines were shorter Tuesday.

“The process really showed how important our flexibilities in our voting system are,” said Ion Sancho, former Leon County Supervisor of Elections, who helped promote some of these reforms in Florida’s system.

Another key to Florida’s success this election was that vote-by-mail ballots could be counted weeks before Election Day.

Even before the pandemic, Florida law allowed county election officials to begin opening and processing mail ballots through ballot tabulators 22 days ahead of the election. The Legislature opted in 2019 to increase it from 15 days to give elections offices more time. And because of the large numbers of mail ballots expected because of the coronavirus, DeSantis in June signed an executive order allowing elections officials to begin that process even earlier this year.

That head start allowed counties to quickly share the majority of results within minutes of polls closing on Tuesday. It is a felony to release results before polls close on Election Day.

Laws in swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin prohibit elections officials from putting mail ballots through ballot counters until Election Day, prolonging the tabulation and increasing tension and discontent as vote totals ticked up and the margin between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden shifted dramatically.

In Detroit and Phoenix, Trump supporters descended on counting centers as officials worked to process ballots, yelling “Stop the count" or “Stop the steal.” The scenes were reminiscent of the Brooks Brothers Riot in Miami during the 2000 recount, when Republican operatives organized a protest that halted the recount in that county.

Protesters also have turned out to demand that every vote be counted.

“After the dust settles in the 2020 elections, laws should be changed to allow more states to count more votes earlier,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University who teaches election law. She said Florida was wise to allow for the earlier tabulation.

Florida’s long familiarity with voting by mail helped to mitigate the partisan division seen in other states, said Charles Stewart III, director of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab.

Trump spent months lobbing unfounded attacks against mail ballots, sowing doubt about the option and attacking some states' vote-by-mail plans even as the pandemic prompted a major shift to mail voting nationally.

His comments appeared to have made a difference in Florida, where nearly 2.2 million Democrats voted by mail compared to 1.5 million Republicans. Until this year, it was Florida Republicans who held the edge in vote-by-mail.

Trump tweeted in August that Florida’s vote-by-mail system was “safe and secure” and urged Floridians to vote this way.

“Trump said if you’re a good Trumpie, you don’t vote by mail. In Florida, many of those people were already voting by mail,” Stewart said. “Political strategists in Florida came out almost immediately and said, ‘No, no, no, we want people to vote by mail.’”

Related: Vote-by-mail helps Florida Republicans. So why is Trump bashing it?

Florida appears in this election to have “turned out to be more of a leader rather than a punchline when it comes to the voting process," said Billy Corben, a Miami filmmaker who recently released an HBO documentary, 537 Votes, about Florida’s 2000 recount.

“Florida is ... finding a way to do elections better," Corben said.

Corben added, though, that the election is still fresh and “we still don’t know exactly what happened or what went down.”

Related: ‘537 Votes’ by ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ director recounts Bush v. Gore in Florida

County elections offices are still dealing with ballots, including those from overseas voters. It’s not yet clear how many mail ballots were returned too late to be counted or how much slowdowns at the U.S. Postal Service could have caused problems.

“We didn’t even know about counties being hacked in 2016 until years later,” Corben said, referring to the revelation last year in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that at least one Florida county had had its voter registration information breached by Russian hackers.

Certainly, no election is without issues. This year, there were technical glitches, a few voting sites that had to be closed or moved at the last minute due to the coronavirus and scattered reports of misinformation or voters feeling harassed or intimidated.

Yet given the highly emotional nature of this year’s election, there were fewer reported issues than expected, said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

Brigham said there were “pockets” of concern, but said that, “overall, Florida should be proud that we did a good job efficiently and fairly.”

Elections officials appeared able to find enough poll workers and scenarios about election-related unrest or violence did not come to fruition.

Florida’s drama-free presidential election this year should not be a surprise, say those who have watched the state’s elections over the years.

In recent years, elections officials and state lawmakers have made changes to technology and processes and standardized rules about things like what types of voting machines can be used.

Long gone are the controversial machines that made the term “hanging chads” a phrase every American knows. A brief stint with touchscreen voting machines was abandoned years ago in favor of paper ballots that can be tabulated by machine.

Even the outdated ballot scanners used in Palm Beach County in the 2018 election that caused recount delays were replaced ahead of the 2020 election.

Responding to a conservative commentator questioning how Florida could count votes so efficiently this year, Jeb Bush — who was Florida governor during the 2000 election ultimately won by his brother George W. Bush — tweeted: “Because we learned our lesson after 2000 and changed our laws.”

Some counties are still using voting equipment that is not even being manufactured anymore. And some experts said they’d like to see further changes, such as giving counties more time to conduct recounts or changing how the state audits its elections.

“There were a lot of things in Florida that needed to be fixed, and many were fixed,” MIT’s Stewart said. “Some took longer than others.”

Stewart noted that Florida’s problems in 2000 weren’t necessarily special to the Sunshine State. Florida just came under more scrutiny because of the close presidential race.

“The 2000 election was the big wake-up call throughout the country," Stewart said. "If it hadn’t been Florida, it could have been another state, quite frankly.”

Florida’s smooth election this year was also helped by the fact that the presidential race didn’t end up as a nail-biter and no statewide recount was needed, said Stetson’s Torres-Spelliscy.

In the hours after polls closed Tuesday, it became apparent that the state would be going solidly for Trump, with a more than 3 percent spread between him and Biden.

That spared Florida from legal maneuvers and issues now found in other battleground states.

Craig Latimer, supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County and president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections association, said he and his 66 colleagues around the state would have been ready for a statewide recount if it had come to that. (That’s not to say there won’t be recounts this year; for instance, Miami-Dade is likely to see a recount in the race for Senate District 37.)

Related: Florida has likely recount in this Senate race separated by 21 votes

Latimer said elections staff across the state worked hard to prepare for this presidential election year and noted that he’s long been saying that this year’s election would go well in Florida.

“Florida was in a perfect position to be a shining star on election night,” Latimer said. He said he hopes in the future that, instead of reporters asking about comparisons to the 2000 election, “you’ll hold us to the standard set in 2020.”

For now, Latimer is focused on finishing this election. He’s got multiple semi trucks-worth of ballots that are getting stored and 4,000 voting privacy booths that need to be wiped down.

County elections officials need to submit official results by Nov. 15 for the 2020 general election.

And then it’s on to the next election, Latimer said. He’s got a municipal election in Plant City in April.

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

ELECTION RESULTS — FLORIDA AND TAMPA BAY: See all races, statewide and in Hillsborough, Pinellas and other Tampa Bay counties.

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