SARASOTA — Fresh on the heels of a wild election season that saw three recounts in statewide races, Florida election officials gathered Monday for a conference in Sarasota said their offices performed well overall and they are not recommending big changes to state election law
“The system worked very, very well in 66 out of 67 counties,” said Alan Hays, a former GOP state senator who now serves as the Lake County Supervisor of Elections. “So we need to do some tweaking here and there, no major changes”.
Hays chairs the legislative committee of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, which continued its meeting that began Sunday at The Westin Sarasota.
The FSASE approved its agenda for the two-month legislative session that begins in March. The association is proposing a handful of changes to state law, including mailing absentee ballots earlier, allowing elections officials to begin counting absentee ballots earlier and giving voters an extra day to rectify signature mismatches on absentee ballots.
Other than that, the FSASE – which represents Florida’s 67 elections supervisors – largely is recommending to stay the course with the current election laws, some of which were challenged in court in recent weeks or criticized by various elections officials.
Given the amount of drama surrounding the recent recounts, the modest reform proposals from the state’s elections officials might seem surprising. But most of the criticism was levied at just two elections offices – those in Broward and Palm Beach counties – and many Florida elections officials seem to believe that the process largely worked as intended.
“A recount in three statewide races is unprecedented and when you consider the odds of that happening and the smoothness of how the recount went, the citizens of Florida should be proud,” Hays said.
Florida’s top elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, also defended the overall performance of state election officials this cycle.
“We had a great election,” Detzner told conference attendees Monday. “We know we had a great election.”
“Some people may not think we had a good election,” Detzner added, before going on to argue that, given the number of recounts, “nobody in the country could have done what we did here.”
Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux, who serves as president of FSASE, said elections officials are anxious about some of the public discussion surrounding the recount and wary of going too far with legislative fixes.
“We just need to tweak rules and procedures more than laws, I suspect, in most cases,” Lux said.
Florida law gives counties four days to finish counting ballots and report unofficial election results to the state, but the slow pace of ballot counting in Broward and Palm Beach still drew extensive criticism.
As ballots were still being counted in the two Democratic-leaning counties days after the election, two GOP candidates saw their margins of victory shrink and a third was overtaken by his Democratic opponent.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott eventually prevailed in his effort to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson after both machine and manual recounts. Nikki Fried, the Democrat running for agriculture commissioner, also came out ahead over Republican Matt Caldwell after machine and manual recounts.
Meanwhile, Republican Ron DeSantis won the governor’s race over Democrat Andrew Gillum after a machine recount.
Scott was highly critical of the supervisors of elections in Broward and Palm Beach counties, neither of whom attended the FSASE conference.
The governor held a press conference two days after the election to blast the two supervisors. Scott declared that “there may be rampant fraud happening in Palm Beach and Broward counties” and said that “I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the great people of Florida.”
Snipes later announced that she would resign in January, but last week Scott decided to remove her from office anyway and replace her with his former general counsel, Peter Antonacci. Snipes then rescinded her resignation and said she will fight Scott’s attempt to boot her from office.
The check-in table at the conference had name badges for both Snipes and Antonacci and neither badge had been claimed by Monday afternoon.
Lux said the chatter among Republicans in Okaloosa – a strongly Republican county – was “Oh my God, they just keep manufacturing ballots down in Broward County.”
“And I’m like, ‘But are they?’” Lux said, voicing skepticism that there was something nefarious going on.
“When you see things from a distance without explanation there are things that can look a little goofy that people don’t understand,” Lux said. “And then things get misreported and then it sort of takes on a life of its own and you find yourself defending things that the law requires you to do.”
In regard to the recount, Lux noted that 66 of 67 counties met all their recount deadlines. That doesn’t mean there weren’t problems with the recount, though.
Broward County was late submitting recount results, while Hillsborough County did not submit its machine recount results to the state because the total ballots tallied in the recount was nearly 850 fewer than the first ballot count. Other counties – including Sarasota – also tallied fewer ballots during the machine recount than during the initial vote count, leading to headlines that votes had gone missing.
Some elections officials believe the recount deadlines are too tight.
“To recreate what we did in 15 days in four days is tight,” said Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner.
But the FSASE is not recommending any changes to the recount deadlines.
“That’s one of the things that is so critical in changes in our process is that every time we move one deadline it’s going to have an effect somewhere down the line and so we don’t want to get too far out away from election night,” Hays said.
Much of the FSASE legislative agenda focuses on absentee ballots. Responding to a lawsuit filed by Nelson after the election, a federal judge extended the deadline for voters to fix signature problems with their absentee ballots.
Judge Mark Walker gave voters until Saturday Nov. 17 – 11 days after the election – to reconcile a signature that did not match the one on file. The deadline in Florida law to correct a signature problem is 5 p.m. on the day before the election, but Walker wrote that the law “allows county election officials to reject vote-by-mail and provisional ballots for mismatched signatures — with no standards, an illusory process to cure, and no process to challenge the rejection” and does not pass “constitutional muster.”
The FSASE recommendation is to extend the deadline to fix a signature mismatch until 7 p.m. on Election Day, giving voters another day.
“Somewhere the voter must take responsibility,” Hays said. “If they wait until the last minute they’re diminishing their chances of success.”
Overall, Hays said the message going into the next legislative session from FSASE is: “Let’s be in the process of fine-tuning rather than radical overall.”
Whether lawmakers will take the same approach remains to be seen.
David Ramba, the lobbyist for FSASE, told a group gathered for a session about understanding the legislative process that “there’s a lot of things we’re going to see in this upcoming session.”
The challenge, Ramba told the elections officials, will be explaining to lawmakers why their proposals “won’t work.”
“Every legislator that can fog a mirror today knows that elections are going to be a hot topic in Tallahassee,” Hays said, adding: “Now is certainly the time for us to be proactive and to let em’ know: Folks, we don’t need an overahaul of the system, all we need is a few tweaks here and there.”