In the Trump era, prophesying America’s imminent collapse into a second civil war has gone from being an occupation for street-corner cranks, to something approaching a national pastime. In recent months, U.S. news outlets have published articles under the following headlines:
As those last two headers indicate, most of this speculation about imminent insurrection is driven less by the premise’s credibility, than by social media’s insatiable demand for doomsaying.
And yet, that demand is rooted in an important truth about American politics, circa 2018: The two major parties have developed worldviews so irreconcilable — and thus, the stakes of whether one or the other controls government have become so high — that their ability to exchange power peacefully can feel almost miraculous (and therefore, unsustainable).
The U.S. remains a long way from state failure. But the threat that distrust in the legitimacy of the democratic process will inspire routine acts of domestic terrorism is already a live one. In this context, political leaders have a profound responsibility to avoid sowing distrust in the legitimacy of election results, unless they have a strong evidentiary basis for doing so.
On Thursday, Florida governor Rick Scott, Senator Marco Rubio, and President Donald Trump accused Democratic officials of fabricating votes — in order to “steal” elections in the Sunshine State — despite having no evidence whatsoever to support that extraordinary charge.
Their reckless rhetoric did stem from (what appears to be) a legitimate grievance. On Tuesday night, Scott appeared to have won a Senate race in Florida — with virtually all precincts reporting, the governor led incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson by more than 57,000 votes, and Nelson’s campaign signaled its intention to concede.
But then, over the ensuing days, election supervisors in Broward County began releasing large batches of previously uncounted ballots, which steadily narrowed Scott’s margin until, on Thursday, his lead dropped to under 16,000 votes — well beneath the threshold for a mandatory recount.
No other county in Florida failed to tabulate its votes in a timely manner on Tuesday night. And no other county in the state has as poor a reputation for competent and ethical election supervision. Broward County Election supervisor Brenda Snipes has repeatedly failed to execute the duties of her office in perfect compliance with the letter of the law. In one instance, her office prematurely disposed of ballots cast in the 2016 Democratic congressional primary between incumbent Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Tim Canova. Critically, Snipes did not destroy the ballots before they were counted, but merely failed to wait the statutorily mandated amount of time before eliminating them. Given that the Schultz–Canova race wasn’t a close contest in the initial vote (and wasn’t expected to be), there’s little reason to interpret Snipes’s actions as consequential or nefarious (which is to say, there is little reason to think she destroyed the ballots to secure her preferred candidate’s victory). In another instance, a judge found that Snipes was not following the proper procedure for tabulating absentee ballots.
Now, in the days since Scott declared victory, Snipes has refused to tell his campaign how many absentee and early-voting ballots remain uncounted — information that the Republican Party says that it is entitled to, under Florida’s Public Records Act. Thus, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has filed a lawsuit against Snipes, demanding such data. On Friday afternoon, a Florida District Court found in the committee’s favor, ordering Snipes to hand over voter records by 7 p.m. that evening.
Meanwhile, the combination of Snipes’s checkered history, Broward’s singular tardiness in processing its votes, the county’s refusal to disclose how many ballots remain to be counted (before tomorrow’s noon deadline for certification) — and the steady erosion in Scott’s margin of victory — has led Republicans to fear foul play.
Such concerns are understandable. But they are also utterly unsubstantiated. When networks called the race for Scott Tuesday night, the New York Times’ forecasting algorithm was still giving him a mere 53 percent chance of winning the election — because, based on the vote totals in other parts of the state, the model assumed that there had to be a lot of missing votes in (heavily Democratic) Broward County. Which is to say: One doesn’t need to invoke a vast left-wing conspiracy to explain why Nelson gained votes between election night and Thursday afternoon. And yet, that is precisely what Scott, Rubio, and Trump have done.
“Every day since the election the left-wing activists in Broward County have been coming up with more and more ballots out of nowhere,” Scott told reporters Thursday night.
“I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try and steal this election from the great people of Florida,” the governor — who had personally disenfranchised so many former felons in the Sunshine State, more than 20 percent of its voting-age African-American population was not allowed to cast a ballot on Tuesday — continued.
Earlier in the day, Marco Rubio had leveled similar charges, tweeting that “democrat lawyers are descending on #Florida. They have been very clear they aren’t here to make sure every vote is counted. They are here to change the results of election; & - #Broward is where they plan to do it.”
In reality, Democratic lawyers “descended” on Florida because the margins in both the state’s Senate and gubernatorial races had thinned to the point where Florida law would require a recount. And in the Senate race, a recount appears especially necessary, due to irregularities in Nelson’s pattern of support. Specifically, an aberrant percentage of voters in Broward County marked their ballots for gubernatorial candidates — but left the Senate ballot line blank. This might have been the product of poor ballot design (in which case, Nelson has no way to rectify the error). But there is a chance that it might be the result of glitchy voting machines (in which case, a hand recount just might throw the race to Nelson).
Nevertheless, the president of the United States decided that there was simply no explanation for why the Democratic Party would send lawyers to Florida — right around the same time that major statewide races hit the the threshold for a recount — other than an elaborate conspiracy to commit election fraud.
As of this writing, there is good reason to believe that Broward County election officials are incompetent — but no evidence to suggest that they are willing to undermine the foundations of our democracy, in order to safeguard partisan gains.
And that is more than one can say about the elected leadership of the Republican Party.