When you talk presidential politics in Florida, the race of 2000 is the political cloud that still lingers over the Sunshine State, two decades later.
“That was not fun, that was not fun at all,” said elections attorney Mitchell Berger who represented former Vice President Al Gore in his run for President against George W. Bush in 2000.
Known now as Bush v. Gore, it was the Supreme Court decision that decided the Presidency that year and left Florida a global parody for its hanging chads, butterfly ballots, recounts and court fights.
Few were as intimately involved in the chaos as Craig Waters, long time communications director of Florida’s Supreme Court. At the time, Waters became known the world over for his court-step announcements on rulings and decisions during the election debacle.
“No one really saw that coming until it hit us in the face,” Waters recalls. “It was like a big circus. When I say circus, I’m not kidding,” said Waters. Pictures that are now part of the Florida Supreme Court’s memory album show crowds of spectators and media from around the world crowding the steps of the state courthouse awaiting decisions.
20 years later, with results from another highly anticipated race just hours away in a state as divided as it was in 2000, we asked Waters what’s changed in the election process.
“Well, it’s a whole mix of things. The climate is different and the technology is different,” he said.
Voting machinery in Florida has changed since the race in 2000, but not without a few stumbles. Florida is now on its third voting system in 20 years after punch cards failed and touchscreens left no paper trail.
All of Florida’s 67 Supervisors of Elections are required to conduct ballot testing and post-election audits as added safeguards. In addition, millions of dollars have been spent by counties to ensure machines and polling places are secure.
A series of new laws were also passed by lawmakers in 2018 after more election snafus and recounts put Florida in the national spotlight during the 2018 Primary Election. Ballot design is unified across the state, so is the way ballots are counted.
This election season, more than 4.7 million people have voted by mail as of Tuesday morning, breaking state records. As part of voting reforms in 2018, voters now have up until two days after election day to fix signature issues. Still, political insiders agree any embarrassment of presidential proportions in 2020 will likely revolve around mail ins.
“If there’s going to be a mistake made it’s most definitely going to be signature related on vote by mail,” said Tampa-based political analyst, Dr. Susan MacManus.
But unlike many states, Florida is was allowed to start processing mail-in ballots 22 days ago, another attempt to keep Florida’s track record of voting troubles history.
“I’m feeling like we are as well prepared as we can be,” said Waters about the Tuesday night.
Social media advances and the ongoing pandemic will likely keep Waters out of the spotlight if the Florida Supreme Court needs to get involved in this election, 20 years after the election noone who lived through it will forget.
“I will be in one of the offices in the building watching it from the window and hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself,” said Waters.