Pre-empting Paranoia

Under The Hood


“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

The line from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 could as easily describe the chaos of tight election season as it does the mad bureaucracy of the military in time of war. That’s what makes it so difficult to solve problems with election systems at the precise moments when stakes are highest.

The thing about politics is there’s always someone after you. The nature of political races pits qualified people against one another, and it can be difficult to keep discourse respectful and based in fact.

You could see this in lawsuits filed around Florida’s statewide recounts, complaints justified with ideological arguments but driven quite clearly with strategic ends in mind. But as the Florida Legislature convened in Tallahassee this week, the topic turned to the future, meaning election reform. One hopes lawmakers put aside the legal arguments meant to justify particular ends and instead seek ways to make elections more certain.

The abundance of those watching the recount process closely in Florida feel the victors in the major races—Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, Relublican Sen.-elect Rick Scott and Democrat Agriculture Comm.-elect Nikki Fried—indeed won more legal votes than their opponents. But for those with the greatest stake in different outcomes, most obviously the opposing candidates, there remains room for doubt.

So what went wrong? When it comes to the creation of irrational paranoia, problems reached a critical mass about two days after the Nov. 6 election. That’s when thousands of votes still being counted in heavily Democratic Broward and Palm Beach counties shifted the Governor’s race into machine recount margins, the Senate race into hand recount range and actually flipped the victor in the extremely Agriculture race.

Speaking mid-recount to Republican Matt Caldwell, who lost the Agriculture race days after declaring victory, I got a sense he’d been made a fool by circumstances outside his control. He’d claimed victory based on bad information that showed fewer votes remaining to be counted than his margin of victory. Turns out, elections officials in many counties, not just those two, had far more vote-by-mail ballots waiting to be pumped through scanners. But nobody knew that, and but for a ridiculously close margin between candidates, that wouldn’t matter.

Forget for a moment the crazy theories flying around social media about boxes of Broward County votes materializing from secret back rooms. Honestly, after two recounts in less than a week, that type of fraud would have been sussed out had it actually occurred. Votes have audit trails. There’s multiple records tracking what voters come to polls and plenty of data on the precincts where votes come from.

But the paranoia came from a real place, one of helpless ignorance. Campaign officials, journalists and even elections office staffers felt a sense of freefall upon the realization a potentially limitless number of votes remained to be counted days after polls closed. That could have been solved easily if elections officials, before reporting the all-important results of a race, could first provide an accounting of ballots cast.

Had Caldwell known 80,000 Broward County votes still awaited tabulation, he likely would not have claimed a win for a race he ultimately lost. More importantly, nobody could speculate wildly about where ballots came from if we’d been told immediately how many ballots elections officials received. That simple step would not have changed the margins of victory in these races or stopped every legal fight, but it might have pre-empted many of accusations that fueled resentment throughout the recount process.

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