The Common Thread in All Those Florida Election Debacles

One thing Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis have going for them -- besides the obvious lead in vote totals so far -- is history. Republican presidential candidates Rutherford B. Hayes and George W. Bush both eventually ended up carrying the state of Florida in 1876 and 2000, two other prolonged elections.

Even before Brenda Snipes ran elections in Broward County, Florida had real issues with counting votes. My book, Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections, opens by asking, “What is it with Florida anyway?”

I never expected to be asking this question after the 2018 midterm elections. The country is also on edge this year over the outcomes of the Arizona Senate race where Democrat Kyrsten Sinema is slightly leading Republican Martha McSally. Also, Democrat Stacey Abrams won’t concede defeat to Republican Brian Kemp in the Georgia governor’s race, even though it appears Kemp is the likely winner. Razor thin elections create the risk that large portions of voters will view the winner as illegitimate.

Still, only Florida will definitely have recounts, in this case affecting two of the most closely-watched statewide races in the country. Perhaps the biggest common thread for 1876, 2000, and 2018 isn’t numbers and geography. Rather, it’s the Democratic party’s determination to hunt for votes after election day to gain power. 

Of course, other states have had past voting problems too. But Florida managed to be one of four states contested in the disputed 1876 presidential election -- eventually decided by Congress. It was the only contested state in the 2000 election -- eventually decided by the Supreme Court.

In one respect, the 2018 midterms are more similar to the 1876 centennial crisis of Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden, since multiples states are in question.

Rather than a recount, the 1876 controversy was about who carried the Florida’s four electoral votes. The other contested states in 1876 were South Carolina, which had seven electoral votes; Louisiana, which had eight; and one of Oregon’s three electoral votes was in question.

Today, “voter suppression” is a bumper sticker slogan the DNC rolls out every two years to raise money and oppose voter ID laws. In 1876, just 11 years after the Civil War, the south was in reconstruction. For the newly freed black Americans, voter suppression was a reality. Democrats were also eager to cheat in those days as well. In Florida, Democrats handed out Tilden tickets decorated with Republican symbols to try to deceive freedmen they believed were illiterate.

After the election, the Republican recanvasing boards determined Hayes won the Florida by 922 votes out of 47,000 cast. However, the Democratic officials found enough votes to contend that Tilden had won the state by 94 votes.

A federal electoral commission made up of five senators, five House members, and five Supreme Court justices voted 8-7 along party line that Hayes had won the electoral votes in all four contested states. After much partisan debate and a compromise to preemptively end Reconstruction in the South, a Democratic House and Republican Senate voted to ratify the commission’s determination and make Hayes president.

In another respect, the Florida mess of 2018 more resembles the 2000 presidential showdown between Bush and Democrat Al Gore. It’s a recount where Democrats insisted that new votes could be found in Palm Beach and Broward counties, among other Democratic strongholds in the state, if they looked and counted enough. Palm Beach and Broward are the two key counties today.

Gore reportedly said in the midst of the 2000 recount, “I’m not like George Bush. If he wins or loses, life goes on. I will do anything to win.”

Similar to Gore, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum conceded defeat then unconceded. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson never conceded, but, almost echoing Gore, Nelson’s campaign attorney Marc Elias said bluntly of the recount push, “We’re doing it to win.” 

In 2000, Democratic lawyers targeted overseas absentee ballots from the military, presumed more likely to be Bush voters. Democrats threatened to sue Seminole and Duval counties in Florida, over technicalities, to stop military vote counts.

Gore campaign operative Bob Beckel thought that there was a way to capture the Electoral College without the Florida recount. He said, “I’m trying to kidnap electors. Whatever it takes.” Beckel and the Democrats were researching the backgrounds of Republican electors across the nation in hopes of persuading them to give the Electoral College vote to Gore. However, Beckel insisted this was about lobbying and not blackmail.

These were both PR nightmares for Democrats, which previously had the upper hand in messaging by insisting every vote be counted.

Counting every vote has been a standby line for Democrats for years, but few folks believe it anymore. Most Americans only believe that every eligible and legal vote should count -- not literally every vote. Whether it’s 1876, 2000 or 2018, the Democrats’ goal is to win and gain power. For that, Elias may deserve credit for honesty.

Fred Lucas is the author of Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections and is the White House correspondent for The Daily Signal. 

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