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GOP Voter Suppression, Intimidation, and Lies

November 14, 2018
GOP protesters

Source: Miami Herald

We can now definitely add intimidation of election officials to the Republican playbook for manipulating elections. Florida governor Rick Scott spent his two terms in office devising and implementing voter suppression measures that have become standard operating procedure in states throughout the country under Republican administration. These play a major part in explaining how the GOP has managed to keep winning tight elections and impose minority rule on the entire country. Voter suppression deliberately creates a built-in advantage for Republican candidates, but when it doesn’t work as well as intended, they launch a barrage of evidence-free accusations that Democrats are trying to steal the election.

No sooner had it become apparent that the races for Florida’s governor and US senator were headed for a mandatory recount than Republicans–including incumbent Governor Rick Scott, Senator Marco Rubio, and the President of the United States–began tweeting unfounded accusations of malfeasance against the embattled supervisor of elections in heavily Democratic Broward County, which has the second highest vote total in the state. It is necessary to state here that to date there has been no evidence produced by Scott’s lawyers or anyone else that the count was being manipulated.

On November 8, Scott (whose margin over incumbent Bill Nelson in the Senate race had slipped below 0.25%) filed two lawsuits against the election supervisors in Broward and Palm Beach counties for allegedly withholding information on vote tabulations and hindering processing of absentee ballots. Standing on the steps of the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee, Scott declared “I will not stand idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election.” Republican protestors duly arrived on November 9, chanting “stop the steal” and “lock her up” and trying to force their way into the building where votes were still being tabulated.

From Paris on that same day (while avoiding the ceremony commemorating the end of WWI because of the “weather”), Trump tweeted: “Trying to STEAL two big elections in Florida! We are watching closely!” Then on November 12, Trump upped the ante, tweeting: “The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”.

Other prominent Florida Republicans piled on. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi on November 11 strongly urged state police Sunday to investigate Republican claims of voter fraud in Broward and Palm Beach counties — a day after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it found no evidence of it. Florida’s other senator, Marco Rubio, quickly chimed with a series of tweets repeating the same memes and claiming that Democrats “are here to change the results of election; & – #Broward is where they plan to do it.#Sayfie”.

At this point, we must just stipulate that all of this is utter bullshit.

According to Florida law, local election supervisors had until noon on Saturday, November 10 to publish preliminary election results, which they did. This is how it is supposed to work. If the margin is less than 0.5 percent (which it was for the governor, senator, and state commissioner of agriculture races), there is a mandatory machine recount, the results of which must be reported by 3 p.m. Thursday, November 15. (This is a very tight deadline for counties like Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach which have by far the largest number of votes to recount.) The results are then compared with the initial reported tally. If the numbers match, the vote tally can be considered accurate, and if the margin is greater than 0.25% of the total vote, the results will be considered official. If, however, the margin is less than 0.25%, the state can order a manual recount of ballots with overvotes or undervotes–i.e., where the voter either marked more or less than the allowable choices. This could take many days. Then on November 16, overseas and military votes that were postmarked by November 6 are counted, which could actually help the Republican candidates. The official returns are due from the counties on November 18 and all are to be certified by the state on November 20.

It is also worth noting that Florida is not unique in having to wait for the final results. At this writing, votes are still being counted in Arizona and in California, which is notoriously slow to release final tallies. And in Georgia, voters are still waiting to find out if governor race is within the margin to require a run-off.

Florida is unique, however, in repeatedly having elections that are decided by tiny margins, though in apparent defiance of the laws of probability, they almost always fall in favor of the Republicans. The most notorious was the 2000 presidential election, in which an agonizing manual recount was abruptly ended by a ruling from a divided Supreme Court, resulting in George W. Bush becoming president by virtue of 537 Florida votes. This is the third squeaker for Rick Scott. In 2010, he won by 61,550 votes or a margin of 1.2%. In 2014, he won by 64,145 votes or a margin of 1.0%. It’s not really a mystery how this keeps happening.

Broward County has had a history of problems with its election administration, but these have had to do with inefficiency and mistakes, and there has been no evidence of actual fraud or partisan manipulation. The current supervisor, Brenda Snipes, was appointed by Republican Governor Jeb Bush in 2003 (after her predecessor was removed from her job), and Snipes has been re-elected (as a Democrat) four times since then. For the 2018 election, the state Division of Elections sent election monitors to Broward County, and they reported “no evidence of criminal activity”, despite accusations by Scott, Trump, and others. Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement refused to comply with state Attorney General Pam Bondi’s demand for an investigation for the same reason. A Circuit Court judge rejected Scott’s demand to “impound and secure” all voting machines, citing lack of specific allegations, let alone evidence, and he admonished everyone to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric.

Realistically, the odds of reversing the preliminary results are very long. They rest largely on a suspiciously high undervote in one section of Broward County where the ballot placed the selection for the US Senator below the general instructions in a location that could easily have been overlooked by voters. It is not clear at this point whether many voters missed this section of the ballot or if the machine readers failed to count it. Presumably, the recount will answer this question.

All of the sound and fury over the Broward vote count has obscured a far larger problem, which is targeted voter suppression by the Republican party. Indeed, Rick Scott has been at the center of these efforts, wielding much the same methods that Brian Kemp employed so blatantly this year in Georgia.  And Scott was not first to do this. Just before the infamous 2000 election, Jeb Bush’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris (remember her?) removed 173,000 people from Florida’s voter rolls for being convicted felons, based on a list supplied by a private contractor with close ties to the GOP. The problem was that only a small fraction of the people removed actually had felony convictions, but for the great majority of those purged, it was too late to do anything about it. That was only one of the shenanigans by Jeb Bush’s administration that delivered the presidency to his brother George, who Al Gore defeated by some 250,000 votes nationwide.

Scott pulled a similar stunt just before the 2012 election, sending out a list of about 180,000 “non-citizens” to be removed from voter rolls. Again, the list (which had murky origins) turned out to be grossly inaccurate, and a Miami Herald analysis of the names on it revealed that Hispanic, Democratic, and independent voters were most likely to be targeted–only 13% of those on the list were white. (Watch this 2012 segment by Rachel Maddow.) And once again, there was no time for legitimate voters on the list to do anything about it before the election. Editorials throughout the state denounced this move; the Tampa Bay Times called it “shameless voter suppression.”

In 2011, Scott’s first year as governor, he cut early voting days from 15 to 8 and eliminated early voting on the last Sunday before the election. (This was partially restored by a 2013 federal law which gave county election supervisors the discretion to schedule up to 16 days of early voting and restored Sunday early vote days. Of course, it also gave county supervisors discretion not to do that.) The 2011 “Voting Reform” bill he signed into law included other measures clearly intended to tilt the playing field in the Republicans’ favor, as several people involved in its drafting later admitted.

The bill also contained an “exact match” provision, which allows election workers to summarily reject mail-in votes for perceived variations in the signature on the ballot from that on file in each county’s voter registration. In 2016, a federal judge ruled that Florida voters whose ballots had been rejected had to be allowed an opportunity to correct mistakes. A study by the ACLU revealed that ballots of younger and minority voters being rejected at much higher rates than those of white voters. Despite the court ruling, most voters whose ballot has been rejected will never know that unless they proactively check to see if it was counted. Rejection rates have varied greatly from county to county, but in 2018 more than 15,000 ballots had already been rejected in Florida five days before the mid-term election. 

Scott also reversed a policy under his predecessor Charlie Crist (then still a Republican) which had set up an automatic process to restore voting rights to convicted felons after they had completed their sentences. Under Scott, those who had lost their rights had to wait 5 to 7 years even to petition for restoration, and petitions were rarely approved. Effectively, this meant that anyone with a felony conviction lost their voting rights for life, preventing some 1,500,000 people (9% of the state’s population) from voting. (In the 2018 election, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights after completion of most felony sentences–over Scott’s opposition.)

For a full account of Scott’s voter suppression measures, read this report here.

It is worth pointing out that Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who still has overall authority over Florida elections, was Scott’s right-hand man in devising and implementing all of these voter suppression measures.

Republican voter suppression has been only partially thwarted by push-back from civil rights organizations and the public, which have resulted a few limited victories in court, where judges have ruled against some of the most egregious measures. Often, however, rulings have been flouted or simply ignored–especially in states where both the executive and legislature are firmly in Republican hands. Judges have been reluctant to intervene in cases where new suppression measures are imposed shortly before elections–exactly when they have the most impact. And Mitch McConnell will certainly use his Senate majority to speed up the confirmation process to fill vacancies on the federal bench with conservative judges who are likely to rule against challenges to voter suppression measures, which will leave the legal battle to secure voting rights even more of an uphill challenge. It’s important to remember, that the 2013 Supreme Court decision by its conservative majority that gutted the Voting Rights Act is precisely what unleashed this new wave of voter suppression. And Trump’s appointments have moved the Supreme Court even further to the right.






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