Electoral Triage: Lessons from GA, NC, and FL

“There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”
George W. Bush

In the 2000 Presidential Election the election of George W. Bush over Al Gore came down to recounts, insufficient resources, and poor ballot designs in Southern Florida. In the 2018 midterm elections, the choice of Florida’s senator for the next 6 years, and all that entails in a Senate defined by razor thin margins, came down to nearly identical problems—with the courts once again ruling whether or not Florida can complete its recount and questions abounding about counting provisional ballots.

And once again, the polarization of the United States descends upon Florida with Republicans protesting the (re)count of ballots, sometimes by physically blocking the electoral process. Nationally, partisans weigh in with accusations of election fraud from Republicans or anti-democratic actions from Democrats. Clearly there are issues with Florida’s election systems, issues that no one has attempted to address in the last eighteen years, and now the question of what those issues are, as well as their solution, has become politicized. In the midst of this controversy, as well as the mess that was the Georgia’s governor race and the mounting evidence of mass voter and election fraud in NC-9, there is a dearth of talking heads defending the value of the democratic process.

Some pundits talk about the importance of democracy, or sanctity of elections, but in reaction to the number of electoral controversies this year triage in the form of policy change—not sentiments used to justify preexisting opinions—is what American democracy needs. These policy changes need to be advocated on a national scale. It is not enough to demand an investigation into accusations of election fraud in NC but say everything is A-Okay in FL (or vice versa, for that matter).

To that end, based on the electoral failures and controversies in FL, GA, and NC this year, I have a few (relatively simple) triage solutions to defend democracy. None of these are systemic solutions, they are simply first blush reactions to today’s failures to keep American democracy from being fooled a third time in an identical fashion

  1. End all vote count limits. Votes should be counted in a timely fashion, but if something happens that slows the vote counting process that should  not invalidate people’s votes.  
  2. End all recount deadlines. Again, if a recount is taking a long time that is no reason for the recount’s results to be ignored.  Broward County, in FL, uploaded its recount results 2 minutes late, causing the state to reject them.
  3. Prevent candidates in an election from having any influence in how that election is run or certified.  There is no doubt in my mind that GA Governor Elect Kemp abused his position of trust and power as Secretary of State to try to change the results of the election in his favor. Just as judges recuse themselves from cases they worked on as lawyers or that may implicate them, so too must candidates for elected office recuse themselves from the role of running elections in which they are a candidate. 
  4. Provide adequate resources for elections and their recounts. Palm Beach County didn’t have enough machines to properly do the recount, and what machines they did have were so outdated they broke down.  In GA (among many other states) people lined up for hours so they could vote because not enough poling places were provided. 
  5. When an election is close enough to have a recount, there should be a mandatory hand recount of a random selection of ballots.  The machine recounts in FL, if they were done properly, would not have found any systemic mistakes the machines were making in counting ballots—one of the concerns of the Nelson camp.  The reason being, the machines that did the initial count would do the recount using the same software they used for the initial election. 
  6. Non-partisan election observers should observe the entire process. This is especially important during recounts, but given the growing lack of faith in Florida’s election system from all sides non-partisan observers (maybe even shadowed by partisan observers as well) should be present to convince the public the rule of law is being upheld—or inform voters if their democratic rights are being violated. 
  7. All accusations of election or voter fraud should cause a mandatory, non-partisan, investigation.   

American Democracy is under fire from numerous quarters, and is in need of systemic improvement.  Some systemic improvements (like mail in ballots) have precedents and models.  Others are more radical and controversial (like proportional representation), and arguably more important.  But before systemic change can be successful triage must be performed to rebuild some sense of faith in elections around the country. Otherwise we will have no one to blame but ourselves when the media descends on FL, NC, or any other state that can’t seem to learn from mistakes of the past.  

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