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Deja vu in Florida election

November 2000 was the closest race in Florida’s history. Improbable as it might seem, it's happening again. This time it's not the presidential ballot, but three statewide races for the US Senate, state Governor and the Commissioner for Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.
8 Nov 2018 – 07:31 PM EST
Could it happen again? Florida's 2018 election is on course for a repeat of the famous 2000 election recount that secured the presidency for George W Bush. Crédito: David Maris/Univision

November 8, 2000 is a date that brings back bad memories, especially for Florida voters and Democrats nationwide. Now add November 6, 2018.

It was 18 years ago that voters woke up to find that a day after they went to the polls there was still no result in the election for president between George W. Bush and Al Gore. In fact, the race was so close - only 1,784 votes separated them - that there would have to be a recount.

This year was a midterm election so there was no president on the ballot. But we still don't have results for the two most hotly contested races, for the U.S. Senate between incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Governor Rick Scott as well as for Governor between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis. A recount is also going to happen in a third race for the Commissioner for Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.

As New York Yankees legend, Yogi Berra would say, 'it's deja vu all over again.'

The problem appears to revolve around a slow vote count in Broward County where for some unknown reason votes appear to be missing in the Senate race with Scott leading by 17,000 votes out of more than eight million votes cast and the gap shrinking by the hour. Making it more tantalizing, Broward County is one of the state's largest counties with more than 670,000 votes and a Democrat stronghold. In fact, votes counted so far show the county favoring Nelson by a two-to-one margin of 466,321 votes to 208,895 for Scott.

This is where it gets bizarre. In the contest for Governor, there were 21,000 more votes cast than in the Senate race. Experts said this so-called "undercount" made no sense. In 3.7% of the Broward ballots, the choice for Senator was left blank even though a vote was cast for Governor. "No other county comes close," wrote Matthew Isbell, a liberal political consultant, who provided a map to demonstrate the anomaly, noting that some counties had more votes for Senator than Governor.

"Either this is ballot design or machine error," he added.

Already the lawyers are lining up for a protracted battle and the politicians are letting fly with mutual accusations.

After Scott accused Broward and Palm Beach elections officials of "rampant fraud" - without providing any evidence - President Donald Trump followed up with claims of a "big corruption scandal" in South Florida.

Senator Marco Rubio accused Democrats of trying to steal the election. Democrats hit back saying Rubio should let the democratic process work and allow election officials to do their job and count all the ballots.

Floridians know plenty about both ballot design and machine error. Back in November 2000, the day after the election it soon emerged there was a problem in Palm Beach County. Voters were complaining about messing up hard-to-read 'butterfly' ballots, and the voting machines were having a hard time reading them too.

At the same time, Broward County and Miami Dade were having trouble with punch card ballots where voters had failed to press hard enough to remove the selected paper square, known as a 'chad.' As a result, they ended up with so-called 'hanging chads.' A legal argument erupted over whether they counted as a vote or not.

Officials sifted through ballots, sometimes holding them up to magnifying glasses trying to detect if a legitimate vote had been cast.

In total, 29,000 ballots were thrown out — about 4 percent of the county's votes.

Pretty soon buses started to arrive from Texas and Georgia with party activists. They were pumped up. And well dressed. As veteran local observer Dan Ricker called it, both sides came to see it as “A fight against the evil empire.”

On Nov. 17, an official recount was relaunched. When Republicans appealed to the Florida Supreme Court it ruled the recount could continue, but a deadline was set for Nov. 26, at 5 p.m. Thanksgiving was only 24 hours away. The legal arguments would continue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the end, Bush was declared the winner by 537 votes.

Since then, studies have shown that Gore could have won the vote, but only if all the questionable ballots had been counted. There remains enormous disagreement about what standard should have been used to verify the ballots.

One thing that has changed. After the 2000 debacle, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami Dade did away with butterfly ballots and chads. The only question now is whether Broward's optical scanning machines are any better?

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