The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when last Tuesday's election was able to be called without waiting for the Sunshine State to weigh in. Once again, Florida failed where 49 other states succeeded in collecting, counting and reporting the vote in a timely manner. Thankfully our results were moot, in terms of the outcome, but there's a much larger point. Had the election again come down to Florida's electoral votes, as many likely scenarios predicted it could, we would have been in another enormous mess just 12 years after our historic catastrophe of 2000 that led to the U.S. Supreme Court installing a president. It's time to say that enough is enough.
It would be hard to defend claims that our state is simply incompetent given the abject failure we've delivered in this arena. But what's more disturbing is how many of the factors which conspired to create the mess were instituted by design. For the last year and a half, the Republican legislature has been fixated on changing the way Florida votes. Under the ridiculous guise of “fraud prevention,” Florida has joined other American Legislative Exchange Council-influenced states in restructuring voter laws to chip away at every demographic that does not lean Republican. In passing “reforms” almost identical to other states – all of which are clearly drafted from model bills provided by ALEC – the legislature has not only stacked the deck, but they've clearly broken the very mechanism by which an elected democracy functions.
That part is troubling, as well as embarrassing. But now let's imagine that the election had come down to Florida's 29 electoral votes, as could have very well been the case. Can we possibly be confident that the results would have been reported even four days late, or that the same outcome would have held? What would have stopped the state's single-party power structure from turning in a repeat performance of 2000 when they delivered the presidency to their candidate, despite the fact that the post-election reconstruction later determined clearly that Al Gore won the state by any reasonable standard, even after more than 100,000 of his likely votes were scrubbed from the rolls through an intentionally-faulty process?
Anyone who doubts that statement should read award-winning investigative journalist Greg Palast's The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. Palast, working for U.K. publication The Guardian, broke the story on how Florida contracted with a Texas-based company and then instructed them to doctor the scrub criteria in such a way that more than a hundred thousand eligible voters would be wrongly removed from the rolls – the vast majority of whom were likely Democrats. Palast also showed how inconsistency on decisions in counting military absentee ballots and other types of votes conspired to ensure a greater likelihood of Republican votes being counted. Considering that it was then-governor Jeb Bush's own brother who benefited from the flawed policies, the stink only thickens.
In the end, the Supreme Court accepted the Republican Secretary of State's certification of a 537-vote Bush victory, despite the fact that Palast's subsequent investigation showed that had all legal votes been counted, Gore would have won by a margin close to the one President Obama enjoyed this year. I can't say that I would have been the least bit surprised if something similar happened in 2012, had power-brokers in our state had a chance to again figure in the election of a president – nor do I imagine the rest of the country would have been shocked had we screwed up the second presidential election in just four cycles.
Shortening the early voting window did nothing to combat fraud, while it clearly impacted the long lines experienced on Tuesday when the last vote was cast after 1 a.m. the next morning! It did however, help to mitigate the successful get out the vote drives that many African-American churches held in 2008 by providing bus and van transportation to voters after Sunday service – voters who overwhelmingly supported President Obama – by halving the number of Sundays in the early voting period. And if the state couldn't see the problems coming, they surely could have responded to the pleas from voters' rights groups and election supervisors to extend the early voting period once it became clear that the long ballots and high turnout this year were headed toward a disaster on the shortened schedule. But Gov. Rick Scott denied those pleas, and it can't be overlooked that it had been unanimously calculated that his party's candidate would benefit from decreased in-person early voting, where more Democrats tend to turn out. The governor says he'll "look into it," but he doesn't have to. He signed every one of these ridiculous new rules into law.
Many Republicans have even asserted that the 2012 Florida vote count was rigged in the president's favor. Most of these assertions are based on reports from fake news sites that reported well over 100 percent turnout in many counties, in which President Obama supposedly garnered more votes than there were registered voters. In actuality, the 71 percent turnout was lower than the last two cycles of 75 percent in '08 and 74 percent in 2000. It's hard to say how much of that was owed to voters who simply gave up on the long lines, though there were numerous reports of would-be voters shut out by the process. Nonetheless, who can blame people who believe such claims, given our state's abysmal record conducting elections?
The Huffington Post recently ran a piece on the 10 people most responsible for Florida's electoral mess. Number one was outgoing Florida Senator Michael Bennett – the same guy the wise voters of Manatee County just elected their new supervisor of elections, the guy who explicitly expressed his desire to make it as hard as possible for people to vote. The list details the farcical passage of the voter suppression laws, noting that there was virtually no evidence of problems with in-person voting fraud. Florida Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), an original co-sponsor of HB 1355, nonsensically acknowledged the complete absence of such proof, but argued for preemptive action. “We’re not gonna wait for fraud,” Baxley told MSNBC. “Governments all the time are accused of waiting until there’s a big problem. We don’t need that.” Then, when absentee ballot fraud arrests led to talk of regulation, David Rivera, a Republican Congressman from Miami who lost his reelection bid last week, suddenly began speaking up for voter's rights, saying that adding restrictions to voting absentee would suppress the Cuban vote. It's not surprising that immigrant communities in South Florida have been most closely associated with vote brokering, or that the Congressman in question is the same one under federal investigation for illegally financing a ringer candidate in his primary.
Where there is occasional fraud, is in absentee voting. It's easy for so-called vote brokers to register legal voters and pay them to fill out their absentee ballot a certain way and turn it over to them, so that they can bundle hundreds of thousands of votes for a candidate or party. It's also much easier to intercept of falsely register an absentee ballot and return it by mail. Not surprisingly, none of the measures taken by the legislature took aim at absentee ballot fraud – also not surprising, Republicans in Florida statistically tend to vote by absentee ballot more often than Democrats. So, you take steps to preemptively "fight fraud" where it doesn't exist by making it harder to vote in all of the ways that the minority party votes in greatest number, while ignoring the process where there has been evidence of fraud, but by which your party tends to vote more often. Then you expect the outside world to believe it's anything other than passively rigging elections?
There's an easy way to end this embarrassing farce. Repeal HB1355, return early voting to 14 days and go back to 75-word ballot referendums (if the courts keep ruling those proposed by the legislature as misleading so be it – they are). By allowing college students to vote where they live and voters who've moved since the last election to vote normally with an oath as in the past, the number of time-consuming provisional ballots will greatly be reduced. Finally, focus fraud efforts on absentee ballots. Otherwise, stop talking about state's rights and the intrusiveness of the federal government. Any state that can't do what 49 others seem to have no problem achieving has no business telling Washington, we'll handle it, on anything.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.
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