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Recount Déjà Vu: How the 2000 Presidential Election Haunts the Midterms

In Florida, Arizona, and Georgia, key races are still being decided by late ballot counting. Donald Trump is crying foul. But will that matter?

President Donald Trump emerging from the heads of George Bush and Al Gore Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2000 presidential election came down to an excruciatingly narrow difference of five points in the electoral college, half a percentage point in the national popular vote, and 537 votes favoring George Bush over Al Gore in Florida. It was close. So contentious was the presidential contest that the Supreme Court resolved the electoral crisis in Florida with its own 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore; the court narrowly upheld the state’s vote certification, terminating the Florida recount and confirming George Bush as the winner.

The 2000 presidential election has haunted Florida, and the rest of the country, ever since.

In 2018, Florida has produced the country’s two most narrowly contested midterm elections. The popular vote margins currently favor the Republican candidates, Governor Rick Scott for the U.S. Senate, and former U.S. representative Ron DeSantis for governor. Incumbent senator Bill Nelson is down one-fifth of a percentage point against Scott, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is down half a percentage point against DeSantis. Broward County, the second-most populous county in Florida, is still counting hundreds of thousands of ballots, so both races are still very much in play. There’s a similar draw developing on the other side of the country. In Arizona, the popular vote in a Senate race that previously favored Republican Representative Martha McSally by less than a percentage point now favors Democratic Representative Kyrsten Sinema by a full percentage point as election officials tally hundreds of thousands of uncounted ballots from three of the state’s most populous counties.

Inevitably, President Donald Trump has volunteered conspiracy theories about the fluctuating tallies in both races. “Rick Scott was up by 50,000+ votes on Election Day, now they ‘found’ many votes and he is only up 15,000 votes,” Trump tweeted. “How come they never find Republican votes?” In a later tweet, Trump credited Marco Rubio “for helping to expose the potential corruption going on with respect to Election Theft in Broward and Palm Beach Counties.” Rubio had been howling about “Democrat lawyers” who have supposedly swarmed Florida to steal favorable election outcomes from his party. But he’d also been offering a far more nuanced and extensive assessment than Trump. “It is not unusual for a county to continue to report updated vote counts,” Rubio tweeted. “What’s unusual(& violation of law)is refusing to report updated votes every 45 minutes,refusing to disclose # of ballots received & taking 5+ days to complete early vote count.” In short, U.S. elections are a federalist fiasco. Rubio is right to scrutinize a process plagued by poor administration and ballot design. But he’s also indulging a general, reactionary angst about election fraud and “voter fraud,” a decidedly politicized concern that conservatives cite—and exaggerate—to dispute registrations among nonwhite voters and tallies from diverse populations such as that in Broward County. Rubio has shown some restraint, but Scott has joined Trump in whining, despite his state’s own evidence to the contrary, about “rampant fraud” by Democrats trying to “steal the election” in Broward and Palm Beach.

Before Election Day, Georgia had been the epicenter for partisan concerns about voter fraud and voter suppression as the Georgia secretary of state administered the election while also running for governor. That’s a close and inconclusive race too: Republican candidate Brian Kemp leads Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams by 1.5 percentage points in the popular vote, and Abrams hopes to recover enough support in the uncounted ballots to force a second ballot runoff election. In the Florida and Arizona races, the popular vote margins are much more narrow, and state law doesn’t require a runoff election in those close cases; the best redress anyone can hope for is a recount, which is underway in the outstanding Florida counties.

Election officials will continue to “find” votes and adjust their tallies accordingly, and cynical partisans will inevitably characterize the adjustments as manipulation and fraud. Democrats have adopted a far more inclusive outlook on voting rights; liberal activist groups backed a successful ballot measure that Florida voters approved Tuesday to restore voting rights for many people who have served time for felonies. Republicans stand in drastic opposition to strong voter protections and expanded voting rights. Nationally, the GOP has become the political party that hopes fewer people will vote and that fewer votes will count.

Trump would be the last person to renew anyone’s faith in any American institutions, and American conservatives would be the last political tradition to defend every citizen’s right to vote. The winners in Florida and Arizona will likely suffer the same asterisk that haunted Bush in the aftermath of the 2000 recount. There’s some ironic possibility that the year will end with Sinema and McSally both representing Arizona in the U.S. Senate. But the Florida races offer no prospects for such happy and equitable resolutions. There can be only one.