About four hours after the polls closed on Election Day, the major TV networks and the Associated Press declared a winner in the crucially important and always bitterly contested state of Florida.
And that was it.
There were no takebacks. No corrections. No recounts. No need for the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court. Other aspects of the 2020 presidential election would carry on chaotically for weeks, then months, as partisans agonized over in-person vote tallies, mail-in ballots, and state-level certifications of official results. But in Florida—yes, Florida—the election could hardly have gone more smoothly.
That’s not usually notable. We expect states to handle elections and compute the results with minimal fuss and chaos. The electoral system is, in some sense, the most fundamental aspect of a democratic government—one that, when it fails, puts into jeopardy everything else that government might aspire to do and be.
That’s why the 2000 presidential election in Florida is infamous. For five weeks, the inability to determine who had won the state’s electoral votes—and with them, the presidency—laid bare just how contingent this whole democracy thing can be.
There was a silver lining to that calamitous moment. In the months after the news cameras turned away from Florida’s election officials, then-Gov. Jeb Bush pushed for changes that would hopefully ensure there’d never be a repeat performance. With the experience of the 2000 election constantly hanging over the state, Florida’s leaders have made running smooth elections a point of pride. The state has been at the forefront of policy changes that make it easier for residents to vote and easier for officials to tabulate the results.
It all came together in 2020. More than 11 million people voted in Florida that year—only California and Texas had more ballots to count. Incredibly, 93 percent of that total was publicly reported by 9:30 p.m. on November 3, just 90 minutes after polls had closed across the state. (National media outlets, perhaps burned by prior experience, didn’t officially call the state for then-President Donald Trump until close to midnight. But they probably could have done so sooner.)
By comparison, Pennsylvania still had around 25 percent of its vote total left to count at 9 a.m. on the morning after Election Day. The Keystone State quickly became ground zero for legal wrangling over the results and attendant conspiracy theories.
The day after the election, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “I think we finally vanquished the ghost of Bush v. Gore,” as he praised state and local officials for their speedy, efficient vote counting.
Counting votes accurately is, of course, the most important part of managing an election. Counting them quickly is important too, especially in an environment like the present, where partisans in politics and the media are eager to fan the flames of conspiracy theories when results take days or weeks to finalize. By failing to quickly tally the results of the 2020 election, some important swing states created an opportunity for Trump and his allies to sow chaos. They will likely have a similar opportunity in 2024.
But if Florida can run a controversy-free election, shouldn’t we expect the same everywhere?
A few months after the 2000 election meltdown in Florida, USA Today interviewed a man who saw the disaster coming.
Roy Saltman was an analyst working for the National Institute of Standards and Technology when he published a 132-page report in 1988 highlighting some of the potential problems with the widely used punch-card voting machines that played a starring role in the Florida fiasco. Based on problems that had occurred in lower-stakes elections throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Saltman noted that some so-called chads—the tiny bits of paper that voters would punch out from the ballot cards to indicate their choice—could be incompletely punched out, leaving some voters’ choices unclear or up to the discretion of election officials. The report included a clear recommendation: “that the use of pre-scored punch card ballots be ended.”
There were other factors in creating the perfect storm of election chaos in 2000: the premature decision by some media outlets to call the state for Al Gore, only to have to rescind that call as more votes were tallied on election night and George W. Bush took the lead; the infamous “butterfly ballots” that may have led some voters in Palm Beach County to accidentally vote for Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan when they intended to vote for Gore; and, of course, the repeated interventions by both the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court in regard to the length of the recount and its eventual end.
But the “hanging chads” came to define the election—and for good reason. The other controversies were simply the result of a narrow election with incredibly high stakes: If Bush had won a bunch of other states too, few people would remember the media screwing up the call on Florida. The indelible image of the 2000 election was that of bleary-eyed election officials holding up punch cards meant to be read by computers, one after the other, for weeks on end.
“The main thing I was asked to rule on is: What was the intent of the voters?” state Circuit Court Judge Jorge Labarga recalled for a 2020 piece in The Atlantic. “People don’t always follow directions. Instead of just puncturing the hole for Al Gore, some people would write Al Gore. Or you could see where they tried to push the little chad through—there’s, like, a bulge in it—but it held in place. That would be a ‘pregnant’ chad. The question for me was: Do we have to have a complete removal of the chad? Or what about a person who wrote in the name Al Gore—do we count that?”
Election rules and equipment have one purpose: to accurately aggregate the will of the people. Instead, the punch-card ballots left some voters’ decisions open to interpretation—and they slowed the counting (and recounting) of votes, compounding the initial failure into a weekslong exercise in uncertainty.
That was the true root of the chaos in the Florida recount. It wasn’t a matter of simple recounting. Two people could look at the same stack of ballots and add them up differently, depending on how they interpreted the hanging, pregnant, and bulging chads.
The U.S. Supreme Court finally intervened to stop the recount for good—effectively handing the election to Bush—on Tuesday, December 12, a full five weeks after Election Day. In his dissenting opinion in Bush v. Gore, Justice John Paul Stevens acknowledged some of the damage caused by Florida’s electoral disaster. “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear,” he wrote. “It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
If that’s true, it’s only because other basic functions of the government failed first. Courts should never have to settle these types of questions. Elections are not just the way we decide who gets to be in power; they’re also the most fundamental thing a government does. They shape public views about state capacity and legitimacy. Unfortunately, this is hardly ever a priority for state governments.
“It has always puzzled me why my report never got a wider acceptance,” Saltman told USA Today in 2001. “It takes a crisis to move people, and it shouldn’t have.”
Though it took a crisis to get the ball rolling, at least the Florida state government didn’t take long to respond to the chaos of the 2000 election.
Just five months later, at the urging of Jeb Bush, the state Legislature enacted a sweeping overhaul of Florida’s election rules. The Election Reform Act of 2001 banned the use of punch-card voting machines and required the secretary of state (rather than county-level elections officials) to have the final say over which kinds of voting machines could be used in the future. The law also clarified Florida’s rules for automatic recounts and set more stringent time frames for the certification of vote counts—a move intended to prevent the seemingly interminable recounts in 2000. It also created new statewide rules for issuing provisional ballots and how those would be counted, with an eye toward ensuring as many Floridians as possible could vote.
“My hope is that people will see that we have resolved the problem,” Jeb Bush told CNN. “Other states ought to look at this as a model, because if there is another close election in another state, I guarantee you that they will not be able to withstand the incredible scrutiny that occurred in Florida.”
Academic observers largely agreed with the governor. In a 2001 report, Jon L. Mills of the University of Florida Levin College of Law called the new rules “a vast improvement” and said the law “may in many ways be a nation-wide model.”
The Election Reform Act was far from perfect, though. One major problem that emerged in later years had to do with the computerized touch-screen voting systems that largely replaced the punch-card ballots. Because they did not provide voters with a printed-out receipt of their choices, those voting machines came under intense criticism for not leaving a trustworthy paper trail, which is necessary in the event of a hack or glitch.
Faced with that problem, Florida lawmakers adapted again. In 2007, an update to the 2001 law required that all electronic voting machines also provide a paper trail so voters can trust their choices were accurately recorded and to help with recounts.
That willingness to keep improving its election system—an impulse perhaps driven by a desire to avoid another embarrassing meltdown—has been a hallmark of the state Legislature for two decades. The state was also one of the first to embrace mail-in voting on a large scale, even before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted some other states to follow suit, sometimes in half-baked ways, in 2020.
Many of these changes have come in the form of state mandates and have included spending taxpayer money on new voting machines and additional training for local election officials. That’s “not necessarily the first libertarian instinct,” admits Walter Olson, a senior legal fellow at the Cato Institute. Even so, Olson says, making sure elections run well is a core responsibility of state governments, and what Florida has done over the past two decades is worth emulating.
“Florida seems to have done a lot of things right,” says Olson. “I find a kind of neat culture balance in which they are nodding practically to a lot of liberal ideas that are, in fact, popular but with conservative cultural trimmings.” For example, the boxes used to collect mail-in ballots are referred to as “secure ballot intake stations,” which adds a conservative-coded aesthetic that simply calling them “drop boxes” does not.
There are good reasons that many voters prefer not to vote until Election Day. It means getting as much information as possible before making your choice. It means a late-breaking scandal is less likely to leave you wishing you could reverse your vote. But many Americans will have good reasons to prefer early voting. From the perspective of a state government trying to run an efficient and effective election, more votes being cast early means more time to do the counting.
Equally important, it means more time to be sure every vote is being counted accurately.
“Florida is famous among election nerds for having the fastest reporting of vote totals in the country, with near-instant results on election night,” says Andy Craig, the director of election policy at the Rainey Center, a centrist think tank. In a report he authored earlier this year, Craig calls Florida’s vote-processing procedures “the gold standard” for other states to follow.
Per state law, counties can begin processing mailed-in ballots up to 25 days before Election Day. That includes just about everything except the actual counting: checking that signatures are valid and that the votes have been legally submitted. Counting those ballots officially begins 15 days before Election Day and must be completed by the time the polls close.
Leaking the results early—a legitimate fear, as it could influence the decisions of voters yet to cast a ballot—is a felony offense. There’s never been a leak.
The process buys valuable time to get things right. According to a post-election report by University of Florida political scientist Daniel A. Smith, mail-in ballots accounted for about 44 percent of the 11 million votes cast in Florida in 2020. Of those 4.85 million ballots, Smith found that about 47,000 were flagged by county election officials for various reasons: missing signatures, voting for multiple candidates, and the like.
Those ballots entered what’s known as the “curing process,” in which county officials reach out to those who cast each ballot in an attempt to clarify or correct whatever caused the ballot to be pulled out of the official count. Voters are then allowed to fill out an affidavit confirming their vote.
By and large, it works. In 2020, only 12,751 of those flagged ballots were unable to be “cured” and counted on Election Day. That’s a rejection rate of less than 0.3 percent among the 4.8 million mail-in ballots.
You can think of those ballots as modern versions of the “hanging chads” that bedeviled Florida officials during the 2000 recount.
In both cases, there’s something abnormal about the ballot as it is received for counting. If election officials don’t have time to investigate that ballot until after the voting is over, as happened in 2000, they’re forced to make their own best judgments about voter intent based on the condition of the ballot. Some ballots will inevitably be misread, and others will be discarded as invalid because they cannot be interpreted one way or the other.
But if election officials have the time to inspect those ballots before Election Day, they can contact the voters in question and grant them an opportunity to have their ballot corrected. That means more voters get to have their votes counted—and counted correctly.
“If every state had Florida’s model,” Craig explains, “the 2020 election would have been called much sooner rather than dragging on for several days like it did.”
The Other States’ Messes
There’s no prize for being the best state at counting votes. But as the country painfully learned in 2000 and again in 2020, there are a variety of penalties for taking what seems like too long.
“This is no special American fetish where some people want fast results. It’s taken for granted, more or less everywhere in the democratic world, that of course we want speedy results,” says Olson. Not knowing causes practical problems—winners can’t begin the relatively short process of preparing to take office, constituents might have no idea who to contact if they need to reach their representative, and so on.
Then there are the darker threats.
“Public suspicion of the system, rightly or wrongly, seems to be directly correlated with the delay in results,” Olson says. “It opens the door for accusations of wrongdoing, whether well-founded or not.”
Olson points to the various, often conflicting arguments that circulated in the aftermath of the 2020 election. In places where policies required vote counting to stop overnight and begin again the day after the election, that was offered as evidence of malfeasance. In places that didn’t halt the tabulation, vote counts might drop at 3 a.m., also fueling suspicion.
Getting a “substantially complete count” on election night, as Florida does, seems to make a significant difference in the perceived legitimacy of elections, Olson concludes.
Meanwhile, states like Pennsylvania and Arizona invited criticism and groundless allegations of impropriety solely because they took days or weeks to finalize their tabulation. That was not an accident. In Pennsylvania, for example, local election officials are prohibited from even beginning to process mailed-in ballots until after the polls close on Election Day—in other words, 25 days after Florida begins handling mailed-in ballots.
In that environment, there is no way for a close race to be resolved in a timely manner. Worse, it limits the ability to “cure” ballots that are improperly submitted, cutting some voters out of the process entirely.
Rather than sowing doubts about the legitimacy of mail-in voting, Florida shows that there’s broad, bipartisan support for elections that are run well. Maybe the best example of that isn’t the super-smooth 2020 presidential election but what happened in the state two years earlier.
In 2018, Florida saw razor-thin margins in races for governor, senator, and agriculture commissioner. All three headed to recounts. All three were resolved by the new November 20 deadline created by the 2001 reforms. Two of the three were won by Republicans.
That election highlights why Florida’s experience with mail-in ballots and other forms of early voting is an interesting case study. After all, Florida has become a more reliably Republican state even asit has seen a dramatic increase in the number of ballots cast by mail. It’s not hard to come up with theories as to why this might be. Most notably, elderly voters, legions of whom reside in Florida, are among the biggest beneficiaries of voting systems that don’t require in-person attendance at polling places. They, of course, skew conservative. (It’s worth noting that Trump voted by mail in Florida in 2020.)
It wasn’t until 2020—and probably due to Trump’s extensive preelection effort to undermine the validity of mail-in voting—that more Democrats than Republicans voted by mail in a Florida election. The same thing happened again in 2022, and DeSantis responded by trying to limit mail-in voting in the future by limiting the number of available ballot drop boxes, among other measures.
Running efficient, accurate elections should not be a partisan issue. It would be a shame to see Florida backtrack on two decades of sensible bipartisan reforms simply because some conservative voters and one former president got grouchy about mail-in voting.
There’s one final lesson from Florida’s history of election reforms since 2000: We don’t need the federal government to be involved.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 debacle, the newly inaugurated President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats pushed a proposal that would have let the federal government set the ground rules for future presidential and congressional elections. Their arguments rested on the perception that some states were doing a poor job running those elections—so poor that the very legitimacy of democracy was imperiled, or at least badly enough that some voters might be disenfranchised.
That idea, of course, ignores the fact that federal officials are not immune to making poor decisions—like the ones that led to Florida’s debacle in 2000, but with far more wide-reaching consequences. Also, federalizing elections seems like an odd idea to propose in the wake of the chaos Trump and his supporters sowed in the 2020 election, which proved that state-run elections are a safeguard against power-hungry federal incumbents who are willing to do whatever it takes to stay in office.
In contrast, Florida’s example shows that state policy makers have an incentive to improve election procedures to avoid national embarrassments. Hopefully, leaders in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, and elsewhere will follow Florida’s example.
There’s no good way to prevent the possibility of an election that comes down to a few votes. The stakes of a quick and accurate count are higher than ever. All the more reason to do things right, even if that means following Florida’s—yes, Florida’s—lead.
Author: Eric Boehm