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When Covering Florida Elections Turns Into a Weekslong Endeavor

November 18,2018 08:12

MIAMI — In the gallows humor of Florida politics, the joke among campaign staffers and news reporters has been running for 18 years, ever since the traumatic presidential election of 2000: Don't make any plans for immediately after Election Day. You ...

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Workers at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office show observers ballots during a hand recount.CreditCreditWilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Nov. 17, 2018

MIAMI — In the gallows humor of Florida politics, the joke among campaign staffers and news reporters has been running for 18 years, ever since the traumatic presidential election of 2000: Don’t make any plans for immediately after Election Day. You might get caught in a dreaded recount.
This year’s recount for Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner was how I ended up sprawled on the floor of the Broward County elections office in Lauderhill, Fla., one day this week, scarfing down takeout Trinidadian chicken curry that a fellow reporter had picked up for me as I read the latest court briefing and made calls to campaign sources.
Recount lawyers milled about, awaiting the next official update on the status of the ballot sorting. Television cameras ran live streams of elections staffers going through the tedious motions of preparing some 700,000 ballots to run through counting machines again.
It was yet another stubbornly close Florida election thrown into the legal and logistical mess of a statewide re-tallying of ballots. (It’s easy to forget that the recount between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 was stopped by the courts and never actually completed.)

There must be some truth to the idea that this state, with its warm weather, mix of cultures and end-of-the-road feel, just attracts a certain type of eccentric personality, and even more eccentric news.
Covering Florida elections for the past decade — first for The Miami Herald and now for The New York Times — I became inevitably steeped in the lore of Bush v. Gore. How we switched to paper ballots, to avoid the magnifying-glass spectacle of punch cards. How we created automatic recounts, to avoid a flurry of lawsuits from candidates demanding them.
I also covered all manner of political weirdness, including the case of the former congressman whose sometime-girlfriend temporarily moved to Nicaragua to work as a hairdresser and avoid a federal criminal investigation. There was also the school board member who was sent to jail after she accepted a bribe from undercover federal agents and hid the money in a restaurant doggie bag. (Really.)
But I did not seriously prepare this year for a recount, even though internal polls and public polls showed the Senate and governor’s races to be incredibly tight. Tight is one thing, I thought. Within half or a quarter of a percentage point is another.
By now, everyone is tired. Everyone is cranky. Judge Mark Walker of the Federal District Court in Tallahassee, who is handling a torrent of recount lawsuits, has told lawyers they will have to work through the night to keep up.

“I feel a little bit like Captain Kirk in the episode where the tribbles started to multiply,” he said on Wednesday, dropping a “Star Trek” reference that made even the weary lawyers laugh. “I’ve only got so many hours and so many days to do this.”
By Thursday, he delivered a line that could have summarized what many an embarrassed Floridian might have been feeling.
“We have been the laughingstock of the world,” he said. “Election after election, and we chose not to fix this.”
Sigh. How could Florida possibly end up here again?
To be fair, Florida is not the only results holdout. California takes a long time counting votes, and yet that doesn’t seem to lead to rowdy protests where demonstrators upset by a local elections supervisor chant, “Lock her up!”
I was not a reporter during the 2000 Florida recount. (I was in 10th grade.) I did not experience the infamous butterfly ballots, hanging chads and Brooks Brothers riot.
This year, when not one but two campaign operatives learned I would be spending Election Day in Tallahassee, they told me I would be well positioned for a recount. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have laughed.
I spent election night at the rain-drenched outdoor party for Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor. Steve Schale, the local strategist who ran President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida, sat next to me, poring over results as they came in on his waterlogged tablet. It’s a testament to Mr. Schale’s quick mathematics that he correctly predicted the recount in the Senate race long before anyone else — by about 9 p.m.

“Florida voted for Bush. Florida voted for Obama. Florida voted for Trump,” he said on Thursday. “It tends to be a place that both leads and reflects the country.”
Whatever you do, don’t blame Florida Man (or Florida Woman), he warned, because we are not that different from everyone else in a country riven by political differences.
“When people make fun of Florida, I kind of push back,” he said. “It’s an interesting, bizarre, quirky, whatever-you-want-to-call-it place, but so is America. And we just reflect that in a more magnified way.”

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