At best, Florida has a vexed relationship with democracy

A group of protesters protest the election in Austin, Texas, November 9, 2000. The nation waits as a Florida recount narrowed Republican Gov. George W. Bush's lead over Al Gore in the race for the presidency. With votes in 65 of 67 Florida counties recounted, the unofficial tally collected by The Associated Press showed Bush leading Gore by 225 votes. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

People write whole entire books on what’s wrong with this state — I know, I’m one of them.

But none of us has ever definitively nailed down what strange brain-warping event, what soul-degenerating disease, turned Juan Ponce de Leon’s Land of Flowers and William Bartram’s “glorious apartment in the boundless palace of the sovereign creator” into “Flori-duh,” the embarrassing appendage hanging off the bottom of America where if something can be screwed up, it will be screwed up.

I’m talking about the basic functions of democracy, although Florida’s got mad skills at destroying whole ecosystems in the name of development, devaluing education, failing to deal with the pandemic, and electing politicians so stupid, craven, and loud you’re almost embarrassed for them.

No wonder Donald J. Trump, that “short-fingered vulgarian,” that malignant narcissist who lied, cheated, and bullied his way to fame, massive (and mysterious) debt, and finally the presidency, moved here to Florida.

The state has long embraced the ethically challenged: Al Capone; Richard Nixon; Jeffrey Epstein; Roger Stone; Matt Gaetz.

We don’t know how Florida’s vote will go next week — that’s “normal” around here. Whatever the count is on election night, well, you might want to remember that our history suggests there will be a certain amount of incompetence, shadiness, and sheer chaos.

We have history.

In 1876, Florida, like the rest of the South, went for the Democratic presidential candidate, bringing Samuel J. Tilden to within one lousy Electoral College vote of winning the White House.

Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th president of the United States, from 1887 to 1891. Credit: Wikipedia.

But the Republicans, who controlled more state electoral boards, threw out a lot of Democratic votes, charging the Dems with violence, voter intimidation, and other nefarious practices, insisting that their man, Rutherford B. Hayes, had actually won.

Remember, this was back during Reconstruction when the Democrats were the pro-slavery party, the party of the Ku Klux Klan, the guys resisting any attempt by formerly enslaved people to behave like the actual citizens they were as guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments.

The Republicans were (mostly) anti-slavery, Unionists, the party of Lincoln.

The parties exchanged brains sometime in the 1960s.

The two sides fought in the courts and the newspapers and sometimes in the streets.

The 1876 deal

Finally, a committee of Supreme Court justices and congressmen cut a deal: South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida would throw their electoral votes to Hayes in exchange for federal troops withdrawing from the Old Confederacy and leaving white folks to enshrine racism in statute, crafting Jim Crow laws to make a mockery of “equal justice.”

The South lost the Civil War, but only in narrow military terms: Culturally and politically, the South whipped those abolitionist Yankees good, with the sharecropping system making sure that black farmers were always in debt to the white landowner and “vagrancy” laws that meant any black man could be arrested at any time, imprisoned, and then turned over to the local mining company or big cotton plantation — slave labor in all but name.

Come 2000, Florida’s rulers — not Dixiecrats this time, but Republicans — had another chance to act like the southern state it still was (and is), denying minorities and the poor the right to vote.

Which is exactly what they did.

Thanks to post-Civil War laws designed to deny ex-felons the right to vote unless the white men in charge gave them “clemency,” voter rolls purged in a way that disproportionately affected people of color, and even tactics such as legal roadblocks to suppress the minority vote, George W. Bush “prevailed.”

George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States, from 2001 to 2009. Credit: Wikipedia.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided that re-counting must stop and Bush became president by a margin of 537 votes.

Twenty years on, Americans must decide whether we want four more years of a malignant narcissist who lies constantly, delights in alienating our democratic allies while he sucks up to dictators, rejects the science of climate change, has utterly failed to mount a response to the rampaging pandemic that’s killed more than 220,000 of us, and cannot begin to fathom the deep pain caused by America’s 400 years of systemic racism.

Trump lives in Florida now: Of course he does! This state encourages the rejection of reality while hanging onto our Old South heritage — after all, the DeSantis regime is still trying to stop ex-felons from voting.

At best, Florida has a vexed relationship with democracy.

Elections experts insist that Florida has improved its voting systems over the past 20 years, although things didn’t go too smoothly in 2018 when some bonehead in Broward County designed a ballot that put the U.S. Senate race between Bill Nelson and Rick Scott on the bottom left-hand corner, under a whole list of instructions, causing many voters to miss it entirely, and possibly costing Bill Nelson re-election.

We can hope.

But here’s the scary part — if you’re partial to democracy, anyway: Many of 2000’s most dubious characters are still around, several of them now far more powerful, possibly lying in wait to see what mayhem they can cause.

Roger Stone, convicted of seven felonies, including lying to Congress, and one of the architects of the “Brooks Brothers Riot” in 2000 which derailed the recount in Miami-Dade, has been set free by his deal pal Donald Trump.

Echoes of 2000

Stone lives in Florida (no surprise here), but some of the Republican storm troopers of yesteryear now inhabit a far more elevated piece of real estate: the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Court, Dec. 2, 2019. Credit: Robin Bravender

In 2000, John Roberts was just a smart, right-wing lawyer advising Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on that recount business involving his big brother; now’s he’s chief justice.

A fresh-faced recent Notre Dame law school grad named Amy Coney Barrett, now an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, traveled down to Florida to help “rescue” thousands of mistake-marred absentee ballots cast by Republicans in Martin County.

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett at hearings of the U.S. Committee on the Judiciary. Credit: Screenshot, Judiciary Committee website.

For some reason, Republicans did not agree that mistake-marred Democratic ballots should also be counted, but then, consistency in the 2000 recount imbroglio was thin on the ground.

Then there’s our party-hearty Yalie justice, Brett Kavanaugh, Delta Kappa Epsilon brother of George W. Bush, who also helped out with those annoying 2000 campaign legal issues in Florida.

Two decades on, the band is getting back together!

In a recent concurring opinion in a case involving whether the state of Wisconsin could extend its deadline for mail-in ballots, Kavanaugh sounded weirdly like Donald Trump, huffing that votes should be counted on election day, because if “thousands of absentee ballots flow in after Election Day” they could “potentially flip the results of an election” causing “chaos and suspicions of impropriety.”

This is not true: Many states allow ballots to be counted after Election Day (including Florida) and the sky does not rain frogs.

But since when does truth matter to a Trumper?

Since when does democracy matter to Trump?

The lion’s share of the pandemonium may descend on Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Georgia this election, but I’d bet solid cash that Florida has its share of misfires, malfeasance, and maybe outright criminality.

Nevertheless, we the citizens, the people, can fight — vote.

If you haven’t done it already, get your butt off the sofa and go to an early polling place — vote.

Show that you care about living in a decent country run by decent people — vote.

Resist the Mussolini-wannabe — vote.

Take responsibility and join in the quest for a more perfect union.


Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.