How Florida could prevent a drawn-out election — and deliver a decisive blow to Trump

David Catanese, David Smiley
·7 min read

Florida is famous for razor-thin voting margins, hanging chads and the Bush v. Gore dispute that still defines the modern day presidential election nightmare.

But in 2020, the swing state has the unique chance to produce a clear winner of its coveted 29 electoral votes on the night of Nov. 3 or early morning hours of Nov. 4 — potentially warding off a drawn-out contest between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden where a winner can’t be declared for days or even weeks.

Due to the state’s long experience administering mail-in ballots, ability to count them early and requirement that they must be received by the time polls close on Election Day, Florida is expected to report its tallies considerably faster than other battlegrounds.

And if Biden can swipe the all-important state from Trump’s column, it could provide the first signal that he’s well on his way to winning the White House.

“We’re going to know what the result is that same night, whether it’s by midnight or 1 or 2 in the morning,” Florida-based Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi said on former Barack Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s podcast. “That can help set the narrative and help prevent President Trump try and claim a delegitimized outcome if Biden can win Florida and win it conclusively.”

While Florida law allows absentee ballot counting to begin 22 days before Election Day, officials in other key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are not allowed to do so until Nov. 3. So counting there is expected to be slower and perhaps last several days due to the flood of absentee votes cast amid the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s why Democrats are hoping Florida, where the first polls close at 7 p.m. eastern time on Tuesday, can kill the drama. Operatives in both parties see Florida as a must-win for Trump, while Biden would still have several other viable paths to an Electoral College victory without the state.

“I’m optimistic, but I’m also on edge,” said Gwen Graham, the former congresswoman and 2018 candidate for governor.

Michael McDonald, the University of Florida professor who runs the early-vote tracking Election Project, said that an election night call in his state is likely.

“If the polls are correct and Biden has the lead that he has, we should be able to call Florida for Biden on election night,” McDonald said. “That’s the most high probability event.”

Polling averages show Biden clinging to a lead of just over 1% in Florida and while Democrats have built an early ballot advantage, they are expecting a robust Election Day turnout by the GOP, providing the ingredients for another photo finish.

“Republicans are going to get their vote out,” said Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale on a recent call evaluating the early vote in the state.

Trump has logged five campaign stops in Florida in the past month and will return to the state on Thursday with a visit to Tampa, where Biden will also be, marking his fourth and fifth Florida stops in October.

The Biden campaign has also deployed arguably its most valuable surrogate, former President Barack Obama, to Miami and Orlando over the last week.

During a trip to Miami-Dade County Saturday, Obama told a small group of Biden campaign supporters at a campaign office in Miami Springs that Florida can make the election simple with a Biden win.

“If you bring Florida home, this thing’s over,” Obama said, while wearing a black mask with the word “vote” on the front.

He then mentioned Florida’s policy of counting mail-in votes as they are received, meaning that the state could offer some clarity on Election Day once polls are closed.

“I won’t have to wait for the results,” Obama said. “I want to go to sleep knowing we’re going to have a president fighting on our behalf.”

Role reversal

The idea that anyone would look to Florida for clarity on election night strikes some as ironic, given the state’s history of tight margins and drawn-out recounts.

Billy Corben, the filmmaker behind the newly released HBO documentary about the 2000 Florida recount, “537 Votes,” said he’d like the state to put the election to bed early Tuesday night. But he isn’t optimistic that will happen.

“I want to remain hopeful but what evidence do we have to be optimistic about how this is going to shake out?” Corben said. “Florida is a state whose elections are like University of Miami Hurricanes and FSU Seminole football games. It doesn’t matter what the expectations are or how good or bad the teams are, it always seems to come down to a field goal.”

Corben’s pessimism of a quick resolution in Florida is shared by most Americans. A Gallup/Knight Foundation poll found that a majority of Americans believe it will take a week or longer before a winner is known in the presidential election. Just 21% think it’ll be apparent on election night.

But a 2 or 3-point victory by either Biden or Trump would likely allow for an election night call in Florida.

In 2016, the Associated Press declared Trump the winner of Florida at 10:50 PM eastern time, even though his final margin of victory was just over 1%, or about 113,000 votes.

Either Trump or Biden would likely need to win Florida by 55,000 votes or more this year to avoid a recount.

Under state law, any election decided by 0.5 percentage points or fewer must go to an automatic recount in which all ballots are re-tabulated. After that process, if the election margin remains below 0.25 percentage points, ballots sorted as over-votes and under-votes are pulled out and a hand recount is conducted. The process requires more than a week and in the past has been accompanied by legal battles.

All eyes on South Florida

In years where Florida has endured high-tension recounts — such as 2018, when three statewide races were decided by fewer than 33,000 votes —South Florida has been at the center of controversy.

Two years ago, Broward County’s elections office left more than 40,000 mail ballots uncounted before Election Day, creating a backlog of Democrat-heavy ballots that led then- U.S. Senate candidate and Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s lead to dwindle the day after the election. Today, the office has 150 staffers processing mail ballots daily and picking up mail ballots directly from the post office rather than waiting for them to be delivered in the afternoon by truck.

A massive number of mail ballots dropped off on Election Day could always complicate things. But elections office spokesman Steve Vancore said as much as 85% of the total vote in Broward County could be released on the county website by 7:15 p.m., leaving little to the imagination.

“We’re hoping to start Tuesday morning with zero ballots uncounted,” he said.

Palm Beach County’s elections office, which also endured intense scrutiny in 2018 as its outdated machines broke down amid five recounts, also expects a smooth election night.

“That’s what we’re certainly hoping for,” said Wendy Sartory Link, who was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to replace the suspended former elections official, Susan Bucher. “I think we’ve done everything we can to get as many ballots in ahead of time. We’ll definitely have finished processing those by Monday night. It’s just a matter of how many come in Tuesday.”

And in Miami-Dade County, where Supervisor of Elections Christina White is anticipating 80% turnout, her staff believes more than three-quarters of the vote will be in before Election Day.

The Miami Herald’s Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed reporting.

Want more McClatchy political coverage? Sign up here to get a daily rundown of 2020 election news from our newsrooms and other local journalists around the country.

And for even more 2020 politics, download McClatchy's Beyond the Bubble podcast here:
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Podcasts