LAUDERHILL, Florida—As Florida Democrats fight to gain ground on their Republican opponents during the statewide recount, they are eyeing a secondary, and perhaps more important, victory down the road.
With the help of veteran Democratic campaign attorney Marc Elias, party activists are tactically laying the groundwork to overhaul controversial state voting laws that they believe disproportionately benefit Republicans by suppressing key demographic groups that overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Their efforts, if successful, could help Democrats oust statewide Republican incumbents in the coming years and provide a massive boost for the party as it fights to win back the White House in 2020.
“There are a number of issues that have been brought to light: signature mismatches, number of and location of early polling places, registration termination, those sorts of things, that will be the topic of discussion between now and 2020,” predicted Mac Stipanovich, a Florida GOP lobbyist who advised then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris during the recount here in 2000.
Since the 2000 election debacle, Florida has been at or near the epicenter of political squabbles over voting laws. But this year’s recount has exposed what Democrats say are glaring, unresolved issues that did not come up when the Supreme Court cemented George W. Bush’s 537-vote victory over Al Gore in Florida.
The principal battle Democrats are waging in the Sunshine State focuses on the unknown number of provisional and mail-in ballots that were deemed invalid because the voters’ signature did not match that which was on file with the state.
Elias, who is representing Sen. Bill Nelson’s (D-FL) campaign during the recount, has sued Florida’s secretary of state to challenge a state law passed in the aftermath of the 2000 recount—ostensibly to limit fraud—requiring that the signatures on the ballot and in state records match. The federal lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, demands that the state count ballots that were deemed invalid over a signature mismatch.
“These are ballots … where untrained—hard working, but untrained—county officials try to play handwriting expert by comparing the two signatures. There is literally no scientific basis upon which lay people can compare two signatures and decide whether or not they match or don’t match,” Elias told reporters on a conference call.
“If we are successful, that will add thousands of additional ballots that have so far gone uncounted,” Elias added. “We believe that all voters, whether they voted for Senator Nelson or for Governor Scott, should not be disenfranchised because an election worker doesn't believe that their signature in two different places are closely resembling.”
It remains unclear just how many ballots were rejected due to a mismatched signature, though among that group is former Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL), who voted for Nelson for Senate and Andrew Gillum for governor and will not have his ballot tallied during the recount. County election offices are required to notify affected voters like Murphy by mail, but those operations are on hold as state election officials pour all of their resources into the recount, lawyers say.
“That’s why I never vote by mail. I always vote early,” Mark Herron, a Tallahassee-based campaign attorney who represented the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 recount, told The Daily Beast. “There is a subjective element to it. I’ve watched canvassing boards just struggle to find some similarities between what’s there and what is on file.”
A hearing for Elias’ case will take place on Wednesday. If the suit is thrown out, it could take weeks to find out how many ballots were invalidated as a result of a mismatched signature. But if it’s successful, thousands of new ballots could be added to the more than 8 million that have already been tallied. And moving forward, Democrats believe there would be fewer barriers for those groups of voters that typically are apathetic toward, or prevented from, participating in national and statewide elections.
“There’s a lot of history in this state of people just feeling unsure that their vote matters,” Steve Schale, who served as Barack Obama’s 2008 Florida state director, told The Daily Beast. “From a tactical perspective, if the courts don’t figure it out, frankly I’m going to encourage my friends in the legislature, Republicans and Democrats, to provide some clear instructions. Because right now it’s just too opaque.”
There is reason to believe that Elias could prevail. This year alone, federal judges have struck down similar signature-matching laws in New Hampshire and Georgia.
So far, Elias has projected confidence that, in the end, Nelson will be re-elected. But locally, Democrats are not nearly as bullish that Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) will suddenly have his 12,562-vote lead erased—and for good reason. According to the nonpartisan voting-rights group FairVote, the vast majority of recent recounts have only changed the margin between two candidates by a few hundred votes, and just one out of every 1,562 statewide elections between 2000 and 2015 had the final outcome reversed due to a recount.
“It’s clear that this isn’t about Bill Nelson. This is about laying the groundwork to change election laws to try to beat Trump in 2020,” said a source close to Scott’s campaign. “When the machine recount is complete on Thursday, Nelson will have to decide if he wants to preserve his legacy and go out with dignity or if he wants to be forever remembered as the guy that liberal interest groups used in an effort to defeat Donald Trump two years early.”
However, any effort to revamp Florida voting laws for future elections will run into a major obstacle. The state legislature is run by Republicans, and though Americans may be fixated now on issues like signature mismatches, there aren’t many pressing incentives for GOP state lawmakers to make changes.
“Democrats would like to see those issues resolved in a way that would enlarge the electorate,” Stipanovich told The Daily Beast. “It is, generally speaking, safe to say that Republicans are not interested in any more people voting than are already voting.”
“Just based on registration, demographics, a larger registered electorate that is committed to vote is not going to produce more Republican victories.”
Democrats acknowledge that their strategy has some built-in risks—namely, the appearance that they are laying the groundwork to undermine public confidence in the final result if Nelson and Gillum both lose. But they believe that Republicans, led by President Donald Trump, have done much worse on that front, and they feel that the long-term benefits of spotlighting Florida’s voting laws outweigh the immediate, recount-related drama it might cause.
“We Democrats are prepared to live with the verdict of the Florida voters,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. “But the Republicans seem to be doing everything they can to stifle the voice of Florida voters. If this is done fair and square, we believe that Senator Nelson has an excellent chance—a much greater than half chance—of being re-elected.”