The 2018 midterm elections are finally over! As the nation breathes a collective sigh of relief, it’s time for Floridians to reevaluate what works and what doesn’t when it comes to our system of voting, especially when it comes to selecting the individuals responsible for overseeing our elections.
For Florida, this election was an opportunity to demonstrate once again that we learned the tough lessons from the 2000 election recount. Overall, our state performed well. Overall, the state demonstrated that it had learned its lessons. Nowhere was this more evident than in Miami-Dade County, where the appointed supervisor of elections Christina White demonstrated that in the state’s largest county, careful planning and excellent execution can turn a potentially chaotic situation into an example of efficient great government.
Unfortunately, what could have been a moment of triumph for the state was tarnished by the decidedly poor performance of two counties, Broward County and Palm Beach County, both of which have elected supervisors of election. Also, unfortunately, few professional election observers were surprised by this fact. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Both of the supervisors, Brenda Snipes in Broward County and former state Sen. Susan Bucher in Palm Beach County, already had have a history of making significant mistakes in their conduct of elections and in being less than transparent in their procedures, routinely demonstrating a lack of transparency. What is surprising is that both supervisors continue to be re-elected. Notwithstanding their documented poor performance, these two supervisors continued to be re-elected by the voters in each county. Snipes avoided a likely suspension by submitting her resignation shortly after Broward barely met the state deadline for the manual recount Nov. 18.
Ironically, on Nov. 6, Florida voters approved Amendment 10, which included a little-noticed constitutional mandate that every county in the state must elect its supervisor of elections in the future. This amendment takes effect in 2024.
Why did Miami-Dade have such a smooth election and recount when the other two largest counties in the state, Broward and Palm Beach, did not? It all boils down to one critical fact: Miami-Dade County appointed an elections professional with a demonstrated record of success to the position and then gave her whatever resources she needed to do her job.
Conversely, the supervisors of election in Broward and Palm Beach, among others throughout Florida, are elected. As constitutional officers, their offices have separate budgets and separate staffs. They cannot access easily the resources of county government. And most importantly, if they are not up to the job, barring the rare instance where a governor may suspend them from office, there is no accountability except during quadrennial elections — by an electorate that is far more focused on who may be their next president or governor than on who is responsible for making sure that their votes for those offices are counted.
In 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush made the difficult decision to suspend Miriam Oliphant as Broward supervisor of elections. He did so only after a committee of her peers produced a detailed report on the operations of her office. Because Oliphant contested her suspension, what followed was the equivalent of an impeachment process with discovery, a trial before a special master and the state Senate voting to remove her from office. A significant part of her defense was the argument that the Broward County Commission had not given her the resources needed to properly run her office. In response, some commissioners argued that they had closely supervised any appropriations of money given to her office because of concerns about her fiscal management. Thus, the inevitable game of ping-pong proceeded, with no one willing to accept responsibility for election mishaps.
Of course, having an appointed supervisor is not a guarantee of success. We suffered a black eye in 2000 when punch-card devices were redeployed without clearing out the now infamous chad left over from prior elections, leaving many ballots unread by the election scanners and prompting a constitutional crisis.
In 2012, Miami-Dade County also experienced significant problems during the presidential election. There were extraordinarily long lines going late into the night. One of the reasons was that Miami- Dade had grown significantly in population, and the numbers of voters in precincts had gotten bigger and bigger. Lack of foresight to forecast a large turnout resulted in extremely large polling places with inadequate supplies and personnel.
Miami-Dade County learned its lesson from 2012. It immediately appointed a new supervisor of elections — a six-year veteran employee of the office — and it worked immediately to remedy the problem of overly large polling places. Additionally, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez told White, the newly appointed supervisor, that she would have whatever resources were required to conduct an orderly election.
We have seen the positive results of putting a qualified professional in charge for 2018. As an elections professional, White anticipated on election night that recounts would be forthcoming and obtained the required approval to begin immediately separating the ballot pages in the likely recounted races immediately. This was a critical decision in her success, as more than over 800,000 ballots were cast in Miami-Dade County.
She also ordered at least five additional high speed high-speed scanners for immediate delivery to expedite the process. She did not have to go back to the County Commission for budget authority. The mayor and the commission had already given her the green light to do whatever was required. As a result of her forward-leaning work, Miami-Dade County has been justly lauded for its performance during the recount.
Unlike Miami-Dade County, the supervisors in Broward and Palm Beach counties did not act with foresight. They started their machine recounts late and were plagued with equipment failures. Nor did they have the comfort of knowing that their County Commissions had their back. They were alone, as independent constitutional officers. They thus failed to meet the deadlines for reporting the results of the machine recount. And they barely made the deadlines for reporting manual recounts.
All of this points to the need to have tried and true elections professionals running our elections, backed by the full resources of their county government. It also points to the benefits of having that elections professional be part of the larger county government so that they can call upon county-wide resources whenever circumstances require. These resources include not just money but also skilled personnel.
In light of this experience, Florida voters should ask for a different kind of election do-over. We should demand the opportunity to vote again on whether or not we want our county supervisors of election to be elected or appointed. We should ask the Florida Legislature to immediately pass a joint resolution placing on the next general election ballot a proposed constitutional amendment to make all supervisors of election appointed offices. This change will be one of the most important steps we as citizens can take to ensure that every vote is counted.
Raquel A. Rodriguez is a partner at McDonald Hopkins in Miami. She served as general counsel to former Gov. Jeb Bush. She is an expert on election law and has advised several presidential, statewide and congressional campaigns.