FOR DEMOCRACY to work, the winners and losers must accept the result was fair. A quick, accurate count helps with that. America’s mid-term elections took place more than a week ago but in several states the results are still not final. Florida is, once again, the worst offender. It took the state four days to carry out a preliminary tally. The results were close enough to prompt recounts, which could take weeks. In the meantime, it is springtime for conspiracy theories. The Republican candidate in the Senate race, Rick Scott, has alleged without evidence that there was “rampant fraud” in two of Florida’s largest counties. The president joined in, saying “large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged.”
Though claims of fraud are unsubstantiated, the brouhaha over the election in Florida is real. Florida has form here. The presidential-election count of 2000 dragged on for more than a month as administrators, lawmakers, and the state’s Supreme Court decided how to count and recount votes. In the Sunshine State’s defence, there is no other big state where the winning margins are so slim. Yet more than 100m people voted in Brazil’s recent presidential election and the results took less than a day to count.
As in most states, Florida’s election management is decentralised. The state delegates election-administration powers to counties. Each of the state’s 67 counties can design its own ballot paper. County officials are then responsible for counting votes within their jurisdiction.
Broward County, which leans Democratic, produced a ballot paper so confusing that lots of voters appear not to have noticed that there was a Senate election taking place in Florida. Broward County cast an abnormally low number of votes in the senate race, prompting speculation that roughly 25,000 “under votes”—where people cast votes for other races but did not vote in the Senate contest—would have tipped the race to the Democratic incumbent.
Unfortunately for Democrats, this own-goal will stand. “You don’t get a do-over for poor ballot design,” says Michael McDonald of the University of Florida. Brenda Snipes, the county’s elections supervisor, has a dreadful record on supervising elections. In 2004 her county lost 58,000 ballots; in 2012 1,000 uncounted votes turned up a week after polling day. This points to yet another problem in Florida. Election supervisors are elected, but few voters know anything about the candidates for the office or bother to turn up and vote.
Ms Snipes says that her county received a pile of ballots by mail just before the deadline, lengthening the count. Other states also had problems certifying election returns. Arizona was slow to count, something its secretary of state, Michele Reagan, attributes to the large number of early votes: 320,000 ballots were unsealed on election day. Each one needed its signature checked, and then to be checked against the election-day ballots, to eliminate any double voting. Most of the states that have certified results are smaller: Delaware and Vermont were among the first to fully report. Florida, by contrast, must count more than 8m ballots.
Having a fragmented, low-tech election administration has some advantages. Though foreign powers might interfere with election campaigns, ancient voting machines are hard to meddle with. The GRU’s hackers did not alter any vote tallies. Yet badly designed ballots and interminable recounts corrode confidence in other ways. For a relatively meagre investment, states could buy voting machines that are not connected to a network, and therefore cannot be hacked remotely, and that spit out paper receipts, so results can be audited later. Failure to do so will invite claims of fraud in 2020 from more candidates, probably starting with the president.