The moment she figured it out, Melinda Fryman’s face fell.
It was the look anyone who has watched Wile E. Coyote sprint over a cliff just when he thought he had finally caught the Road Runner would recognize.
A few seconds of silence followed that felt like an eternity in the cramped room, surrounded by the Canvassing Board, four campaign observers and a handful of citizens.
Columbia County’s machine recount had been rocking and rolling for about two hours. The logic and accuracy tests went off without a hitch. Everyone saw the counters set to zero. The observers read off the test deck tape and found the results lined up to our satisfaction.
Over 6,000 vote by mail ballots had been tabulated with just four tabulating machines, and we were waiting for the last tabulated boxes to be sealed and locked up in the vault while early voting ballots were brought in for tabulation.
The elections staff let observers watch the ballots get sealed and locked up in cages and wheeled back to the vault. We passed a corkboard in the hallway where employees posted requests for prayers for family and friends.
I was learning all about the ins and outs of Columbia County’s history of high school football from a kind woman observing for the Bill Nelson campaign. She was the woman from a small town who knew everybody and made sure you knew it. She asked me if I had seen Bohemian Rhapsody yet, and I told her she just has to go see it when this is all over.
Columbia County’s Republican State Committeeman and I met over coffee in the lobby. He’s a Marine who decided not to attend the Marine Corps Ball in Jacksonville to make sure he got here on time. We all thanked him for his service, even more timely given we were running a recount on Veterans Day.
For a wildly tense, emotionally charged process, everything was going according to plan.
Until it didn’t.
Columbia County’s ballots were tabulated by two different sets of equipment. Two women fed ballots one-by-one into precinct tabulators, while two other employees were able to scan ballots en masse with a desktop computer and a document-feeding scanner.
The document-feeders were identifying and rejecting any ballot with a write-in vote for US Senate, Governor or Commissioner of Agriculture, just like it rejects undervotes and overvotes.
Those write-ins were outstacked, as required by Florida statute. But the women feeding the votes into the old-school tabulators were letting the machines count those votes. So, nearly 25 percent of the way through the process, Melinda had identified a systemic error.
Some write-in votes had been tabulated but were not placed in the specified write-in ballot bin, but instead went in the now-sealed boxes of tabulated vote-by-mail ballots. And thanks to the right of voters to vote in secret, there was now no way to determine where those write-in ballots were in those sealed boxes.
Just over 8.2 million Floridians cast votes in the midterm elections. About 25,000 of those votes came out of Columbia County. Of those 25,000, a fraction of one percent of those voters had picked a write-in candidate for one of the three statewide elections facing a recount. Of that fraction of one percent, a mere fraction of those write-in votes might have been cast for a valid candidate.
In other words, it was a systemic error that would have had an infinitesimally small impact on the elections’ outcomes. On balance, it may have caused no harm nor benefit to any candidate.
But in that moment, Melinda looked utterly crestfallen.
You would have thought the entire election rested on her shoulders and her mistake would have destroyed everything. Nobody spoke as she described the origin of the systemic error. And nobody spoke for the seconds that passed as she tried to sort through in her mind how to correct the error.
We knew it was coming, yet it was no less dramatic when she announced it.
They were starting over. The counters would reset to zero. The vote-by-mail ballots would be unsealed and recounted all over again. And write-in ballots would have to be separated even further into two bins, to ensure tabulated and untabulated ballots would be separated properly.
Two hours of tedious, repetitive work from underpaid staff rendered irrelevant from an honest, statistically insignificant systemic mistake.
If Melinda had said nothing, asked no questions of her staff, we observers would have been none the wiser. She and her staff felt ashamed and embarrassed like the whole world was watching. And of course, the whole world was watching.
Yet, in spite of the embarrassment and public pressure, Melinda did the right thing. Liz Horne’s office did the right thing. And they did the right thing in the right way, in a moment where it is the hardest time to do the right thing.
That’s the Florida I got to witness this month, as an observer for Matt Caldwell’s campaign in four counties over the course of these historic mandatory machine and manual recounts.
A Florida that has set the gold standard for ballot integrity and efficiency in vote tabulation.
A Florida made up of regular people like you and me, who are imperfect, who are partisan, who are passionate about current events and serving our communities.
A Florida that gets thrust into the national spotlight every two years with wild, wooly, hyper-competitive elections where outcomes truly are 50-50 propositions.
And a Florida that never gets enough credit for maintaining these high standards, because good reputations are poisoned by the bad apples in our midst.
Campaigns are emotionally trying experiences. Living the life of a candidate or an operative is demanding and draining. It pushes your patience, sanity and decency to their limits. And when Election Day comes around you professionally live and die by the numbers on those elections websites. Everything you’ve invested of your time, talent and treasure is reflected in those numbers.
Win or lose, nobody wants those numbers to be right more than people like me.
People like Pat, and Jasmine and Dan and Lance and Nicole and Corey and Jason who you don’t know, but who make up a firm that is like a second family for me. People like Matt Caldwell. And yes, people like Nikki Fried, who enters her life in public service damned to an asterisk in the minds of millions of people her department will serve, through no fault of her own.
That is why it has been so invigorating to know that the people who count the votes, far more often than not, share that same intense desire to get those numbers right.
They share that intensity even though, to be fair, observing these recounts is like watching paint dry. Even Marion County’s Supervisor of Elections, Wesley Wilcox, joked to me that it’s “just as boring on our side of the observation window as it is on yours.”
He wasn’t kidding.
And yet, it was a life-changing experience. An experience that increased my confidence in the integrity of this electoral process that people like me allow to hijack our lives for about 24 weeks every 24 months.
My fellow Floridians, you should be proud of the process that took place this month, as tense and stressful as it can be. And you should be incensed that some bad actors have not treated you with the respect you deserve as a citizen of this state.
You should feel contempt for people like Brenda Snipes and Susan Bucher who held positions of public trust and chose to project power rather than integrity. You should be furious that while nearly every county in the state manages to comply with the law and with recount procedures, these supervisors and their staff act like they are above the law, and make Florida look like “Flori-duh” all over again.
I have some free advice for Susan Bucher, Brenda Snipes’s replacement and the people who staff up the systemically broken offices in Broward and Palm Beach counties: Be like Melinda, a staffer in Liz Horne’s Supervisor of Elections office in Columbia County, Florida.
Our laws, when followed, increase our faith in the principle that elections should be free, fair and accurate. Follow those laws and take ownership of your duty to follow them.
You will not be perfect, and when you do fall short, be honest about it, and show people how you’re making things right. Don’t pitch a fit because you got caught, and don’t treat candidates and citizens like garbage for exercising their right to ask how you’re doing your job.
Because I work with politicians for a living. And the leaders of these offices acted like typical career politicians with a lot to hide, and a mountain of contempt for the people who elect them and pay their salaries.
Be like Melinda instead. And you’ll give Florida something to be proud of.
Thank you to every election official who rose to the occasion. I’m blessed to have witnessed your exemplary work. And I’m proud to be able to call myself a fellow Floridian alongside such high-quality people.
These are the folks who really brought it home in 2018.
Matt Mitchell is the Director of Research for Data Targeting, a political consulting firm in Gainesville, Florida.