The races have captured the attention of one Donald Trump, who tweeted this Friday as he headed to Paris aboard Air Force One: "As soon as Democrats sent their best Election stealing lawyer, Marc Elias, to Broward County they miraculously started finding Democrat votes. Don't worry, Florida - I am sending much better lawyers to expose the FRAUD!" (Elias, a Democratic election lawyer, was involved in the 2008 recount in the Minnesota Senate race in which Al Franken came from behind to win.)
All of the talk of Florida and recounts is enough to give some political observers a severe case of déjà vu, given the extended recount of the state's 2000 presidential vote which led to George W. Bush's ultimate victory. I reached out to an expert on that recount -- the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin, who literally wrote the book on the 2000 recount -- for some perspective about what's changed and what hasn't in Florida's election system over the past 18 years. (Toobin is also CNN's chief legal analyst).
Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: The words "Florida recount" have political types breaking out in hives. What are the similarities -- and differences -- between the 2000 Florida recount and what we are headed for in the gubernatorial and Senate races in the state this year?
Toobin: The biggest difference is that the notorious punch-card ballots -- where voters push out the little chads to make their choices -- are no longer in use. Much of the confusion in 2000 came from the difficulties in determining how punch-card ballots were cast -- that is, if an indented or hanging chad counted as a vote. That problem is gone, because most of the state (including Broward County) now uses optical scan ballots -- that is, ballots where the voter fills in a bubble, like on a standardized test, to vote. In theory, determining the intent of the voter on these kinds of ballots is a lot easier to determine when there is a recount.
Another difference is that at this point in the process it's really more accurate to refer to what's going on as a count, rather than a recount, especially in Broward County, which is the current focus of controversy. There is still no final vote total from Broward, which is a heavily Democratic county that includes the city of Fort Lauderdale. It's only after an initial count is complete that it's possible to make a realistic assessment of whether the two Democratic candidates have any chance of making up the difference.
To put it another way, Nelson is currently behind by about 16,000 votes and Gillum by about double that. There is no way, really, to make those kinds of deficits up in a recount. But if the difference continues to shrink as Broward completes its initial count, then the Democrats may have a chance in the recount. Remember that Al Gore lost Florida by 535 votes -- which is a great deal smaller margin than the ones we are discussing in 2018.
Cillizza: It's been almost two decades since hanging chads and butterfly ballots. Has Florida improved its voting system? Why or why not?
Toobin: Yes, as noted above, the systems are improved. Optical scan, as the current system is called, is much better than the punch card. But these systems are still under the control of people who are often not very good at their jobs. And election technology is never a priority for hard-pressed counties. There is no constituency that pressures government to spend money on elections. So no one generally notices or cares until a situation like this one arises.
Cillizza: In 2000, it's broadly acknowledged that the Bush PR operation outflanked that of Gore -- and it made a difference. True? And if so, how important is getting out and framing the recount in a favorable light?
Toobin: Definitely true. As I discuss in my book, the Republicans, led by James A. Baker III, understood that the controversy was as much political as legal. The Republicans used spokespeople and protesters ("Get out of Cheney's house!" they chanted at Gore.) The Democrats tried to take the higher road, and that was a mistake.
But the biggest issue was that the Republicans were always ahead in the count in Florida, and that's what matters most. It's always easier to protect a lead than attack one. And most recounts end with the candidate who was ahead finishing with a bigger lead -- rather than a switch.
Cillizza: President Trump suggested there might be a role for the federal government in the Florida recount. What could that possibly look like?
Toobin: Hard to know exactly. The Republicans have made vague and unsupported allegations of fraud, which could be investigated by the FBI. But there has been nothing to investigate so far. Unlike in many countries, states and localities run elections in the United States, not the central government. That's where the decisions will be made.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "The biggest lessons both parties going into the 2018 recounts should learn from the 2000 experience is ____________." Now, explain.
Toobin: "... elections should be run by well-funded professional administrators, not partisan hacks using outdated equipment."
It's simply absurd that we elect the people who run our elections -- usually the secretary of state. This is particularly outrageous, as in Georgia, where the secretary of state is a candidate in an election that is closely contested. At both the state and county level, partisans still run the elections in Florida, and that's the main root of the problem here. Partisans will never have the credibility that allows the losing side to accept the results without rancor or suspicion.