Betty Riddle grew up in Sarasota, Florida, in a segregated neighborhood that people back in the nineteen-sixties called Black Bottom. She was raised by her mother, Idella, in a wooden house on Central Avenue. When she was twelve, Idella was murdered—“killed by a woman over a man,” Riddle recalled—and so she moved in with her aunt. Riddle learned early how to fight. When she was fifteen years old and seven months pregnant, she stabbed a taunting rival in the eye with a hooked knife.
In 1975, Riddle was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, and given three years’ probation. After she had her baby, a daughter named Leola, she turned to drugs, especially crack cocaine. “I saw crack in everything,” she said. “Whatever I could sell, I sold.” She had another baby by another man, but mostly forgot about her children, resorting to robbery and prostitution to pay for crack. Riddle was in and out of prison, for drugs and for theft; she had two more babies by two more men. “Every boyfriend I ever had was a drug dealer,” she said. In 2002, she was sentenced to a fifth term—ten years this time, for selling cocaine.
In the Gadsden Correctional Facility, in northern Florida, Riddle started listening to radio sermons by a pastor with a soothing voice. At first, the sermons were just a curiosity, something other inmates listened to, but after a time the pastor’s gentle prodding made her examine herself. “I was watching my kids have kids and visit me in prison,” she remembered. One day, while Riddle was writing a letter to her children, the pastor came on the radio with a new message. “God doesn’t change who you are,” he said. “He changes what you have become.” The words startled Riddle. “I put my pen down and said, Damn, that’s me. I was a good person, I used to be a leader, and I’ve become a drug addict. I’m tired of hurting my kids.”
When Riddle got out, she and her daughter opened a food truck, called No Place Like Home, that served Southern cooking. She began attending classes in Bradenton, one county over, to earn a paralegal degree. Between working and studying, Riddle volunteered in the public defender’s office, where the staff knew her from her criminal days. “I’d cussed out the lawyers so bad, that’s why they remembered me,” she said. Now, though, the attorneys found that her patient manner put defendants at ease, and in 2016 the office hired her. She bought a house and a car. “I learned I can do anything if I put my mind to it,” she said. But one thing she could not do was vote.
In 1877, after Reconstruction, legislators across the old Confederacy initiated a sweeping system of laws, known as Jim Crow, that made it virtually impossible for Black people to vote. From 1888 to 1968, not a single Black person was elected to the Florida legislature. The state’s constitution imposed an additional stricture: felons were banned for life from voting.
The ban survived the dismantling of Jim Crow, in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. While many states imposed waiting periods and other restrictions on felons voting, Florida, along with a few other states, maintained a lifetime ban. Black people are arrested at disproportionate rates for felonies, especially drug-related ones; as recently as 2016, the ban disenfranchised one out of every five Black adults in the state.
Desmond Meade, a former felon who had earned a law degree, launched a petition to abolish the voting prohibition on all but the most violent felons. Meade and his allies collected eight hundred thousand signatures, enough to put the question on a statewide ballot, in 2018, as Amendment Four. The campaign to encourage its passage began with volunteers painting logos on bedsheets, but it soon attracted significant funding, and in November the amendment was approved by nearly sixty-five per cent of Florida’s voters. As Meade told me, “White people, Black people, Republicans, Democrats—a whole bunch of conservatives supported us.” More than a million people who voted to elect the current governor, Ron DeSantis, an ally of President Trump, also supported the measure. Amendment Four represented the largest act of enfranchisement since 1971, when the Twenty-sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to eighteen.
On March 17, 2020, the day of the Florida Presidential primary, Riddle rose at 6 a.m. and put on a T-shirt with an inscription that she’d devised: “First in Line, First Time Voting.” At the Robert L. Taylor Community Center, she signed her name to the voting roll and, at the age of sixty-two, cast her first ballot. “Like a gift from Heaven,” she said.
But, after voting in the primary, Riddle may not be able to vote in the upcoming general election. Six months after Amendment Four passed, the Republican-dominated legislature approved a law dictating that ex-felons could vote only if they first paid all the fines, restitution, and fees imposed at their sentencing. The law may affect as many as seven hundred and seventy thousand Florida residents, about half of whom are Black. In many cases, the totals came to thousands of dollars. The burden was not just large but uncertain: state officials testified that they had no way of knowing how much money felons owe, or whether they have paid; those calculations would take six years or so to complete. The legislation gutted Amendment Four, but DeSantis claimed that he was merely enforcing the language that voters had approved. “The amendment does not apply to a felon who has failed to complete all the terms of his sentence,” he maintained.
Riddle and sixteen other former felons sued DeSantis, arguing that the requirement amounted to a poll tax, which is prohibited by the Constitution. The case, filed with support from the A.C.L.U., became known as Jones v. DeSantis. In May, a federal judge ruled against DeSantis’s legislation, which he described as a “pay-to-vote system.”
DeSantis appealed, and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to take up the case. The Eleventh Circuit Court is one of the country’s most conservative appellate panels. Two of the judges, Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa, were DeSantis appointees, recently elevated from the Florida Supreme Court by President Trump. On that court, they had participated in oral arguments that resulted in an advisory decision supporting DeSantis’s view of Amendment Four. By legal custom, they should have recused themselves. They declined to do so, even after the ten sitting Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote to remind them of the ethics breach.
The decision to hear the case pushed any final resolution closer to the voter-registration deadline, on October 5th; even if the judgment goes in the felons’ favor, they will have to scramble to register. Until then, any convicted felon who wants to vote must first pay his fines—meaning, in all likelihood, that the overwhelming majority of them will sit out the November election.
Riddle figures that her bill amounts to at least two thousand dollars. “I can’t pay,” she said. She told me that she wanted to address the Eleventh Circuit herself, in oral arguments, to explain what she believes to be the real motivation behind the new Florida law. “It’s not about the money,” she said. “Not all the Republicans are bad. But they don’t want us to vote. Because they think they’re going to lose.”
For candidates in the coming Presidential election, Florida presents a singular opportunity and a vexing challenge. While other big states, such as Texas and California, reliably go to Republicans or Democrats, Florida is unpredictable. Polling suggests that Joe Biden could plausibly lose there and win the election, though the state’s twenty-nine electoral votes would surely make a victory easier; Trump, by most analyses, cannot win without them.
Stretching eight hundred miles from end to end, Florida encompasses the Deep South counties of the panhandle and the urban centers of Miami, Palm Beach, and Fort Lauderdale, where Jewish and Latino voters predominate. There are growing Puerto Rican enclaves around Orlando, and main-line Republican areas in Naples and Tampa, linked demographically and culturally with the Midwest. This mixture creates an almost perfectly divided electorate. Statewide races are often decided by a few thousand votes, out of millions cast.
Even though Florida is closely split, Republican leaders dominate state politics; since 1999, they have controlled both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. One key to their success has been restricting access to the polls. Lower turnout, particularly among Black voters, has usually favored their side. “Older and more affluent voters tend to be more conservative, and they tend to vote more often,” Daniel Smith, a professor of politics at the University of Florida, told me. That fact has motivated a relentless campaign to tamp down voter turnout. The most overt efforts were hindered by the Voting Rights Act, which until 2013 obligated places with a history of racial discrimination to get Justice Department approval before making major changes in electoral laws. But the less conspicuous efforts have had momentous effects. In 2000, they arguably helped decide the race for the Presidency.
That year’s election, between George W. Bush and Al Gore, was the most bitterly contested in modern American history, a template for decades of partisan strife to come. Both candidates needed to win Florida, but the vote was too close to call, and the counting and recounting dragged on for thirty-five days. People argued over “hanging chads” (scraps of paper that clung to ballots that weren’t punched all the way through) and about “overvotes” (ballot designs that prompted voters to choose more than one candidate, disqualifying themselves). Amid the dispute, the former Nixon operative Roger Stone assembled Republican activists in Miami, to protest what he called a “left-wing power grab by Gore, the same way Fidel Castro did it in Cuba.” In what became known as the Brooks Brothers riot, the activists attempted to force their way into the office of the county’s election supervisor. The chaos subsided only when the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling along partisan lines, stopped the recount. Bush was awarded Florida’s electoral votes, and the Presidency. An official tally later showed that he had won the state by five hundred and thirty-seven votes. Gore had won the national popular vote by half a million.
The scrutiny that followed focussed on Florida’s balloting problems. Another factor received far less attention: a Republican effort, beginning before the election, that prevented thousands of eligible voters from casting ballots.
In the late nineties, after a scandal in which the ballots of about a hundred felons were counted in a Miami mayoral election, state officials began looking for a way to scour voter-registration records for felons. They hired a company called Database Technologies, which was founded by Hank Asher, a former cocaine smuggler and a self-taught computer entrepreneur who sometimes consulted with Rudolph Giuliani on anti-terrorist ventures. Database Technologies presented Florida officials with a choice: they could run a precisely focussed search or a broader one. “The state dictated to us that they wanted to go broader,” George Bruder, a D.B.T. executive, later testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “And we did it in the fashion that they requested.”
Using the looser criteria, D.B.T. technicians compiled a list of approximately sixty thousand names. As the 2000 election approached, the Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris sent lists of presumed felons to the supervisors of elections in the state’s sixty-seven counties, advising them to purge the names from voter rolls.
In Leon County, Ion Sancho was skeptical. The list that he received enumerated nearly seven hundred suspected felons, and he doubted that his voter rolls contained so many. Looking more closely, he found that most of the names didn’t match. “We were being told to purge a voter named Johnston, even though the felon’s name was Johnson,” he told me. Fewer than forty turned out to be felons.
The lists caused mayhem on Election Day. In some counties, many people who had never been convicted of anything discovered that they could not vote. Wallace McDonald, a commercial shrimp fisherman, went to his precinct, in Ybor City, in Tampa, as he had done for more than forty years. McDonald, who is Black, was told that he had been disqualified by an unspecified felony conviction. The son of a former New York City police officer, McDonald had once been rousted by cops in Jim Crow-era Tampa for sleeping on a public bench, but he’d never been convicted of a felony. He finally went home. “I was doing whatever I could do, and saying whatever I could say, but it didn’t make a bit of difference—I couldn’t vote,” McDonald, who is eighty-three, told me.
Linda Howell, the supervisor of elections in Madison County, was notified that she herself was a convicted felon. Howell later gave indignant testimony about the state officials who had launched the purge: “The law said they had to verify this, but they were not taking it seriously—and that could destroy a person’s life. You get that on your record, how do you get it off?”
After the election, a group of Floridians who had been prevented from voting sued Harris and other state officials. David Klausner, a computer-forensics expert who worked with the plaintiffs, told me that D.B.T. had used almost inconceivably sloppy methods, flagging voters with different Social Security numbers, and even genders, from the felons they were being matched with. The roster had been expanded by using names of felons from ten other states. “There were infants on the list,” he told me. “There were dead people.” Klausner calculated that about forty per cent of the people identified as potential felons were Black. “The project was explicitly racial—as Jim Crow as you can get,” he said.
Officials from D.B.T., forced to reëxamine the list, admitted that at least twenty thousand voters had been improperly flagged—roughly forty times the number of votes separating Bush and Gore. Klausner believes that the actual number was much higher, but said that there was no way to determine an exact figure. “The state’s records were a mess, and they were hiding things from us—they were lying,” he told me. “I think they wanted to do it to insure a margin of victory for Bush.”
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded, “Florida’s overzealous efforts to purge voters from the rolls, conducted under the guise of an anti-fraud campaign, resulted in the inexcusable and patently unjust removal of disproportionate numbers of African American voters.” It’s unclear how many improperly flagged voters were prevented from casting ballots on Election Day. Edward Hailes, who was the commission’s general counsel at the time, told me that he believed there were thousands. “As far as I’m concerned, that purge swung the Presidential election,” he said.
After the chaos of the 2000 election, Florida’s legislators enacted reforms to make voting and counting more efficient. Among the most popular was an expansion of early voting, which enabled people to cast ballots at specified locations before the election. Early voting was especially widespread in Black communities, where people often found that the extra days made it easier to vote without having to take time off from work.
In the state’s most populous counties, early voting included the two Sundays before Election Day. Around the state, pastors in predominantly Black churches urged their congregants to cast ballots after services were over. In 2008, when Barack Obama carried Florida and won the Presidency, the largest share of Black votes in the state came from those who voted early. The practice, known as Souls to the Polls, has spread across the country. “Souls to the Polls was an innovative way to tap into the strength of the Black church,” the Reverend R. B. Holmes, Jr., of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, told me.
The results of the 2008 election startled Republican leaders. Obama’s coalition, which included African-Americans, the college-educated, and the young, seemed built for the future. The G.O.P.’s older, whiter voters belonged to demographic sectors that seemed certain to shrink. Republicans across the country began an extended push to reduce voter turnout. “The Republicans realize that voting rules can be changed in a way to achieve a partisan end,” Marc Elias, a voting-rights lawyer for the Democratic Party, said. “Florida becomes a host of that virus—and an exporter.”
In 2010, Florida voters elected Rick Scott, a hard-edged conservative, as governor. Scott was the former chief executive of Columbia/HCA Healthcare, which he had helped to build into the country’s largest for-profit hospital chain. On his watch, though, the F.B.I. found that HCA was defrauding Medicare by, among other things, systematically overcharging the government and paying huge kickbacks to physicians. Federal prosecutors chose not to indict Scott, but, after the F.B.I. raided the company’s offices, HCA pleaded guilty to at least fourteen felonies and was fined $1.7 billion, which was then the largest settlement for health-care fraud in American history. Scott resigned, having accumulated a net worth of more than two hundred million dollars, and financed his run for governor largely with his personal fortune.
When Scott took office, he and the Republican-controlled legislature embarked on a series of initiatives that curtailed access to the polls. In previous elections, state rules had allowed fourteen days of early voting; the legislature eliminated six of those days, including the Sunday before elections, and restricted the hours of early-voting sites. It also sharply tightened the use of third-party groups, such as the League of Women Voters, to register voters, and imposed criminal penalties for such lapses as registering voters without a permit. Under one of the more exacting requirements, volunteers who registered people to vote were given exactly forty-eight hours to submit each form to the state. Those who missed the deadline were fined.
The next year, a federal judge, Robert Hinkle, scaled back the restrictions on voter registration, wryly dismissing the idea that they had been intended to prevent the system from being abused. “If the goal is to discourage voter-registration drives and thus also to make it harder for new voters to register, this may work,” he wrote. But Republican legislators portrayed the strictures as a victory for civic spirit. During one floor debate, the state senator Mike Bennett said, “Do you ever read the stories about the people in Africa—the people in the desert, who literally walk two and three hundred miles so they can have an opportunity to do what we do? And we want to make it more convenient? . . . Do we want to go to their house? Take the polling booth with us?” He went on, “I want them to fight for it. I want them to know what it’s like. I want them to go down there and have to walk across town to go over and vote.” Bennett later became the supervisor of elections in Manatee County. In the weeks before the 2014 midterm elections, he closed dozens of polling sites, forcing more than half the county’s Black population to find a new place to vote.
Before Amendment Four passed, the Florida constitution provided only one avenue to felons who wanted their voting rights restored: clemency from the state. Jeb Bush granted clemency to seventy-six thousand felons during his eight years as governor; Charlie Crist approved a hundred and fifty-five thousand requests in four years. Scott, in eight years, gave clemency to barely three thousand felons.
Clemency hearings are held four times a year in the capitol, in an auditorium where the Florida cabinet meets. The governor and his officials sit on an elevated platform. The felons appear one at a time, and have five minutes apiece to make their case. The law does not require the governor to give a reason for denying clemency, and Scott was unabashed about not having any. “Let me first explain how the process works,” he told one group of felons. “There are absolutely no standards. So we can make any decisions we want. . . . There’s really no law that says you deserve anything.”
Betty Riddle on beach
After former felons were granted voting rights, Betty Riddle cast her first ballot. A legal challenge may make it her last.Photograph by Maggie Steber / VII for The New Yorker
In June, 2011, Scott heard the case of Leon Gillis III, a former drug addict who had served several years in prison for drug and robbery convictions. Since then, Gillis had founded a rehabilitation program and worked as a counsellor to seven hundred recovering heroin addicts in the Daytona Beach area. Gillis, who was sixty-two, told Scott that he took full responsibility for his crimes and asked that his voting rights be restored. Scott told him that he’d have to keep waiting.
“How long is that?” Gillis asked.
“I’m not sure,” Scott said. “I think every case is different.”
Gillis persisted: “What else am I supposed to do? If I am doing everything I am supposed to do, and I am making sure I do the right thing I’m supposed to do, then how long am I supposed to wait?”
“I couldn’t tell you that answer,” Scott said. “I don’t feel comfortable doing it.”
In the summer of 2012, with a Presidential election approaching, Scott initiated Project Integrity, a statewide program that he said was meant to safeguard the electoral system against noncitizen voters. “You don’t get to vote in Florida if you’re a non-U.S. citizen,” he said. An initial sweep flagged a hundred and eighty-two thousand people, but the methodology was so shoddy—officials compared voter registrations with driver’s licenses—that it apparently ensnared thousands of legal voters. Among those who received letters informing them that they weren’t citizens was Bill Internicola, a ninety-one-year-old who had won a Bronze Star at the Battle of the Bulge. Officials later whittled the list of suspected noncitizens down to twenty-six hundred, but an analysis by the Miami Herald found that it was still dominated by likely Democratic voters. A federal appellate court nullified Project Integrity, ruling that it violated laws against political purges.
In the Presidential election that year, Scott and other Republican lawmakers found that the restrictions on early voting had backfired. Polling places were overwhelmed by heavy turnout, forcing many voters to wait in line for hours and causing several well-publicized cases of fainting. Facing an outcry, legislators repealed some restrictions, including the ban on voting the Sunday before elections, which they made optional by county.
But each failing strategy seemed only to inspire Republican leaders to look for another. In 2014, officials in Scott’s administration banned early voting on college campuses. Florida’s public colleges and universities had eight hundred and thirty thousand students, and nearly a third of them had voted early in the previous election; like many young voters, they tended to support Democratic candidates. Scott’s officials expressed concern that a lack of parking spaces would disrupt campus life. A federal judge, Mark Walker, rejected that argument, writing that the ban was “unexplainable on grounds other than age.”
Nevertheless, the legislature voted again in 2019 to require that early-voting sites have “sufficient non-permitted parking.” Since most college campuses allow parking only by permit, advocates said that the state was obviously trying again to quash early voting. Early this year, under the threat of another lawsuit, the state agreed to allow early-voting sites on campus. “We think it’s finally in place now,” Patricia Brigham, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, told me.
Even the weather became the basis for a fight over ballot access. When hurricanes struck before the elections in 2016 and 2018, Scott refused to extend registration deadlines. In the first storm, a federal judge forced him to keep registration open; in the second, another judge allowed him to close it in unaffected areas.
Legislators who sought to tighten ballot access often spoke of preventing fraud, even if they rarely produced evidence of it. But occasionally they described their efforts forthrightly as a matter of partisanship. In 2012, James Greer, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, told a Florida newspaper, “The Republican Party, the strategists, the consultants—they firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates. It’s done for one reason and one reason only . . . because early voting is not good for us.” Greer added that his fellow-Republicans hadn’t discussed voter fraud. “They never came in to see me and tell me we had a fraud issue,” he said. “It’s all a marketing ploy.” (Greer later pleaded guilty to funnelling two hundred thousand dollars from the Party into a shell company called Victory Strategies.)
Republican legislators were aided by the landmark Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, in 2013, which invalidated the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that had made it harder to enact discriminatory voting laws. “The Shelby decision opened the floodgates,” Myrna Pérez, who runs a voting-rights program at New York University’s Brennan Center, said. North Carolina’s legislature quickly passed a voter-I.D. law that disallowed several forms of identification disproportionately used by Black people, including those for students, government employees, and people receiving public assistance. An appeals court struck down the law, calling it an effort to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Soon afterward, Texas imposed a similarly stringent voter-I.D. law.
In Florida, Democratic legislators sometimes objected to the Republican efforts, but they were perpetually in the minority. Some found that they couldn’t even discuss the matter with their peers across the aisle. “I can have a reasonable conversation with any Republican elected official about any issue—except voting,” Dan Gelber, a former House minority leader who is now the mayor of Miami Beach, told me. “When you bring up voting, the Darth Vader mask comes up right away. You can tell—their consultants have said to them, ‘This is how you win.’ ”
For years, lawyers close to the G.O.P. have battered the state with lawsuits seeking to restrict voting. In 2016, a conservative group called the American Civil Rights Union sued Broward County, the state’s most Democratic area, charging that election officials had failed to purge felons and other ineligible voters from their rolls. The suit was handled by J. Christian Adams, a leading conservative activist. Adams didn’t claim to have discovered any instances of fraud. Instead, he invoked a novel legal theory: because the number of registered voters in Broward County exceeded the voting-age population, the county must be maintaining illegal voters on its rolls. A federal court threw out the suit; excess enrollment is typically the result of voters who have moved or died. But, earlier this year, another high-profile conservative voting-rights lawyer, William Consovoy, made a nearly identical argument to the Florida secretary of state, threatening to sue unless the state embarked on a vigorous purge. Consovoy wrote, “Florida’s failure to provide accurate voter rolls violates federal law, jeopardizes the integrity of the upcoming 2020 federal election, and signals to voters that elections in Florida are not being properly safeguarded.”
Consovoy is also part of a team that is trying to prevent New York prosecutors from examining Trump’s tax records. He and the President seem aligned in their views on electoral fraud. After Trump failed to win the popular vote in 2016, he claimed, without citing any evidence, that millions of people had voted illegally. In office, he formed a commission to investigate voter fraud. The commission was disbanded after eight months, having found no evidence of widespread cheating.
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In November, 2018, Scott ran for the U.S. Senate, and he and the incumbent, Bill Nelson, were caught in a virtual tie. When the ballots were counted, Scott led by about twelve thousand votes, out of eight million cast. Under state law, that triggered an automatic recount. Decorum quickly collapsed.
Standing outside the governor’s mansion, Scott vowed, “I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the great people of Florida.” Then he flew to Washington, D.C., to preëmptively join in a photo op for new senators.
Under Florida law, a recount may take no longer than five days; after that time, only a court order can reopen the process. That year, three statewide races were close enough to trigger recounts, and election officials worked around the clock. In Palm Beach County, vote-counting machines overheated and malfunctioned. In local election offices, lawyers for each side disputed the validity of ballots. In Bay County, which had been ravaged by Hurricane Michael, the supervisor of elections took votes, illegally, by e-mail and by fax. Nelson’s team filed federal lawsuits disputing counting rules, hoping to capture rejected ballots. “It was a gut-wrenching, soul-crushing experience,” Marley Wilkes, his campaign manager, told me.
As the recount proceeded, Scott raised the possibility that he would not accept the outcome if he lost. Before all the votes were tallied, he sued two of the state’s largest counties, which were mostly Democratic. “Every Floridian should be concerned there may be rampant fraud happening in Palm Beach and Broward Counties,” Scott said, offering no proof. Matt Gaetz, a Republican congressman from the panhandle, flew to Fort Lauderdale to hold press conferences outside the office of the supervisor of elections, in which he accused Democrats of an elaborate scheme. “If the Democrats are able to learn now what techniques work and don’t work, what transparency laws are going to be followed and which ones aren’t, then it gives them a road map on how to steal the election from Donald Trump in 2020,” he said.
Earlier in the campaign, Nelson had warned about the possibility of Russian intelligence officers breaking into Florida’s election systems. “They have already penetrated certain counties in the state, and they now have free rein to move about,” he said. Nelson had been briefed on the subject by the chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee, but the briefing was classified, and he was constrained in what he could reveal. Scott ridiculed him, calling him “confused.” In case voters didn’t get the hint about Nelson’s age—he was seventy-five—Scott’s campaign manager called him “rambling, incoherent, confused, disjointed.” A few months later, the report by the special prosecutor Robert Mueller revealed that the Russians had indeed hacked the election systems of at least one Florida county in 2016; a subsequent Senate report indicated that at least one more had been hacked and two more targeted.
As in 2000, any problem that affected even a handful of votes was potentially decisive—and several problems emerged that were large enough to swing the race. One of them was late mail-in ballots. In Florida, as in most states, ballots must arrive before the polls close, no matter when they were mailed. In 2018, according to an analysis by the Dartmouth professor Michael Herron, about two hundred thousand ballots arrived on Election Day or the day before, and more kept coming after the deadline passed. “There were thousands of ballots arriving every day, for days after the election,” John Devaney, a voting-rights lawyer who represents progressive organizations, told me. Nelson sued to compel the state to count any ballot postmarked before the election, as his lawyers offered statistical analyses showing that early deadlines were significantly more likely to exclude poor voters and minority voters. They failed, and some fifteen thousand absentee ballots went uncounted.
Two people watch as an obnoxious man parks his obnoxious pink car.
“I hate it when good parking spots happen to bad people.”
Cartoon by Jon Adams
Florida law allows campaigns to appoint observers to monitor voting and counting, with the power to challenge voters or ballots that are thought to be invalid. Each absentee ballot must be opened by hand, and the signature on the ballot must match the voter’s signature on file with the election authority. If an observer succeeds in challenging the signature, the ballot is rejected. In the 2018 race, according to Herron, about eleven thousand ballots were rejected because their signatures did not match, or because they were not signed. (Some ballots didn’t arrive at all: after the election, a box containing two hundred and sixty-six ballots was found in a U.S. Postal Service distribution center that had been evacuated the previous month, after processing packages sent by Cesar Sayoc, a right-wing terrorist who mailed bombs to thirteen prominent Trump opponents.)
For Nelson, the harshest disappointment involved “undervotes.” In the Democratic stronghold of Broward County, thirty thousand voters did not vote for either Senate candidate. It turned out that, because of a faulty design, the Senate race had been buried at the bottom of the ballot’s first column, after a long list of voting instructions. Voters skipping over the instructions had evidently failed to see it. “That was the whole race right there,” Nelson told me. “Those were my votes.” After recounts by machine and by hand, Scott won by ten thousand and thirty-three votes—one-tenth of one per cent of the eight million cast.
Nelson and his aides suggest that the long Republican campaign to restrict voter turnout had finally come to fruition. They look forward to a time when the state’s population has changed too much for such tactics to make a difference. “There is a systematic effort to suppress what Republicans believe are going to be Democratic votes,” Nelson told me. “It’s driven by demographics—but it’s only a matter of time before demographics catch up with them.”
In December, 2017, Ron DeSantis, a little-known congressman from Florida’s east coast, appeared on Fox News, to talk with Laura Ingraham about the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. On the show, DeSantis espoused an extreme—and unsupported—view of the inquiry, saying that it had been cooked up by F.B.I. agents to keep Trump from getting elected. “This is actually taking a bias and basically saying you’re going to use the machinery of government to prevent the American people from making a choice,” he said. “That’s very disturbing.” It was the third time that month that he had appeared on Fox to portray the President as a victim.
At the time, DeSantis was running in the Republican primary for governor, and he trailed Adam Putnam, the state’s genial agriculture commissioner, by a wide margin. Trump saw DeSantis on Fox, and nine days later endorsed him, calling him a “brilliant young leader” who “loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!” DeSantis campaigned as Trump’s surrogate, telling supporters that he had taught his young children to say, “Build the wall.” Trump sometimes appeared at his side, and his backing helped DeSantis surge past Putnam and win the general election.
DeSantis was forty years old, with an eclectic background: he captained the baseball team at Yale, graduated from Harvard Law School, and served as a legal adviser to a Navy seal commander in Falluja, Iraq. In Congress, he reinvented himself as a populist. (As a Florida lobbyist told me, “You won’t hear him talk much about Harvard and Yale.”) DeSantis helped found the Freedom Caucus, and signed a pledge, promoted by the Koch brothers, to vote against any legislation to slow global warming which required new taxes.
In the months after DeSantis was elected governor, he demonstrated fealty to Trump, appearing in the Oval Office and receiving him in Florida. Trump rewarded him with generous federal aid, for hurricane relief and Everglades restoration. Rodney Barreto, a Miami businessman who speaks to DeSantis regularly, told me, “Ron has made it clear that he’s the guy who can call up the President and get what we need.”
When the coronavirus struck, DeSantis disregarded the counsel of epidemiologists. He issued an order for people to stay at home for a month but declined to mandate masks and rarely wore one himself. He was slow to close beaches and parks, even as spring-break revellers gathered in Fort Lauderdale and in Miami. He ordered nonessential businesses to close but defined the term so broadly that it lost its meaning; among the enterprises deemed too important to shut down was professional wrestling.
Florida began reopening on May 4th, and, as the rate of infection initially stayed low, DeSantis was celebrated among conservatives. Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, wrote an op-ed titled “Where Does Ron DeSantis Go to Get His Apology?” Lowry proclaimed that DeSantis, by ignoring the experts and the media, had allowed Florida to reopen at a relatively low cost. DeSantis told Lowry that he regularly reviewed virus data and, with his team, charted a course that differed substantially from that of New York and other coastal cities, cordoning off retirement homes and allowing local officials to decide their own containment plans. He rejected criticism that he was flying without instruments: “I view it more as a badge of honor.” Lowry affirmed that DeSantis had outsmarted the experts, writing, “The disaster so widely predicted hasn’t materialized.”
Within weeks, DeSantis’s strategy collapsed. Hospitals were flooded with patients; many began bringing in nurses from other states, for wages as high as thirty thousand dollars a month. The state’s vast population of retirees, the backbone of Republican dominance, was suddenly threatened. Mayors began to close their cities.
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, told me that DeSantis’s strategy suffered from a misplaced faith that the state could protect its most vulnerable. “People drive, they go to the grocery store, their families come and visit them,” she said. What’s more, the elderly were not the only group at risk; there were the obese, people with diabetes and heart conditions. “The at-risk population is half the country,” she said. The plan’s other flaw was its lack of an aggressive contact-tracing campaign. “That’s not really happening in Florida,” Nuzzo said.
Facing catastrophe, DeSantis declared in late June, “We’re not going back.” Schools would reopen and Disney World would welcome visitors. At a press conference in Tampa, he and Vice-President Mike Pence emphasized that there was no trade-off between fighting the virus and reopening the economy. DeSantis attributed the spectacular rise in infections to increased testing, and assured Florida residents that the situation was under control. “If everyone is, you know, enjoying life but doing it responsibly,” he said, “we’re going to be fine.” Soon afterward, the editorial board of the South Florida Sun Sentinel wrote, “Your daily upbeat message is hopelessly at odds with what Floridians are going through.” The headline was “Help Us Out, Gov. DeSantis. We’re Dying Here.” By mid-July, the state was recording nearly twelve thousand new cases a day.
From the beginning, questions were raised about how truthful DeSantis’s administration had been regarding the epidemic. In May, Rebekah Jones, who managed the state’s coronavirus dashboard, was fired for refusing, in her words, “to manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.” (A DeSantis spokesperson has said that Jones was fired for a pattern of insubordination.) When death counts compiled by county medical examiners began to regularly exceed those released by the Florida Department of Health, the state withheld the higher number. After weeks of assurances that a vigorous contact-tracing campaign was reaching more than ninety per cent of infected people, workers in Miami-Dade County discovered that the rate was closer to seventeen per cent. “You can’t spin the pandemic away,” Gelber, the Miami Beach mayor, told me.
The chaos made folk heroes of people, like Jones, who insisted on getting reliable information to the public. Another was Mike Chitwood, the sheriff of Volusia County, which includes Daytona Beach. In March, Chitwood began posting the latest local virus statistics, including places where there had been large outbreaks, on social media. Every night, Chitwood got data from the Department of Health and updated the tally. The posts became hugely popular with residents; some fifty thousand people regularly viewed them, he said. But Chitwood became increasingly skeptical of the information he was getting. “We knew from people inside the state government that they were not accurately reporting the statistics,” he told me.
In early July, he posted a disclaimer, saying that he could not guarantee the veracity of the information. The next day, officials informed Chitwood that the data would no longer be available. “I went ballistic—absolutely batshit,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. Why are we giving out less information?” He posted an apology and discontinued the updates. An outcry ensued, and the officials backed down. Chitwood is a DeSantis supporter, but he concluded that the Governor had been less than forthright. He recalled a lesson he had learned years before, as a police officer in Philadelphia. “When there’s trouble getting the information, it’s because the information is troubling,” he said.
The pandemic upended calculations of political self-interest. For much of the past two years, DeSantis has been expected to deliver Florida to Trump in November. But, with the virus dominating the public conversation, it seemed increasingly uncertain whether he could—or even wanted to.
By late summer, most polls showed Trump trailing Biden in the state. As DeSantis’s approval rating plummeted, too, he tried to distance himself from the President. A lawyer who speaks regularly with both men told me that DeSantis had decided to provide as little help as possible. He stopped appearing with Trump, stopped visiting the Oval Office, and dragged his feet on raising money for him. DeSantis even tried to undermine efforts to stage the Republican Convention in Jacksonville, which Trump ultimately cancelled. “Ron will tell you he’s doing everything he can for the President, and he’ll sound believable,” the lawyer told me. “But there’s zero evidence for that, and the President notices.” Alan Rubin, a lobbyist who works in both Washington and Florida, told me that DeSantis was increasingly worried that Trump could lose Florida, and was positioning himself to be able to work with a Biden Administration. People around DeSantis believe that he intends to run for President in 2024 and isn’t convinced that having Trump in the White House improves his chances. “He’s a very smart operator,” Rubin said. “Ron’s going to do what he needs to do.”
In April, election supervisors from every county in Florida wrote to DeSantis, urging him to help minimize the effects of the coronavirus on voting in November. The supervisors said that the statewide primary, in March, had presented “significant challenges,” including “substantial numbers” of poll workers who had dropped out at the last minute. They told DeSantis flatly that they were not capable of conducting an election entirely through the mail, and were concerned that they lacked the resources necessary to conduct even limited in-person voting.
The supervisors asked DeSantis to adopt several measures: increase the number of places where early ballots could be cast; give supervisors more time to send voters mail-in ballots and more time to count early ballots; and allow early-voting sites to be reused as polling places on Election Day, to eliminate the need to erect new ones. “As counties are preparing and making staffing and logistical decisions now, the flexibility and authority provided as soon as possible would be of great benefit,” the supervisors said.
DeSantis waited two months to respond, and then granted one of the requests: election workers could begin counting mail-in ballots as early as forty days before the election, instead of twenty-two. He offered to make state employees available to work at polling places, and to “coördinate” with supervisors to supply hand sanitizer and protective gear. On the other requests, one election supervisor told me, “the governor basically ignored us.”
As DeSantis stalled on preparations, Trump was pursuing a campaign against voting by mail. “The 2020 Election will be totally rigged if Mail-in Voting is allowed to take place, & everyone knows it,” he tweeted. During the summer, his Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, removed high-speed sorting machines and instituted other changes that radically diminished the capacity of the Postal Service. Testifying before Congress, DeJoy promised that the mail would be delivered “fully and on time” on Election Day. But in Florida’s elections in 2016 and 2018, even with mail delivery operating normally, thousands of ballots didn’t make it on time.
In Florida, and across the United States, the coronavirus pandemic is inspiring fears that voting in person could be dangerous. What happens if a voter shows up without a mask, angering those who are wearing them? Under Florida law, election supervisors have a responsibility to maintain order at polling places, but they cannot make arrests or prevent anyone from lawfully voting. “The bouncer at the precinct is typically a seventy-five-year-old lady sitting at a card table,” Jon Mills, a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, said.
Since the spring, when the epidemic took hold, a team of lawyers led by Marc Elias, the Democratic voting-rights lawyer, has been presiding over lawsuits in eighteen states, spurring changes to make it easier to vote and in some cases overturning Republican-backed laws that have been in place for years. Elias has sought what he calls the “four pillars” of voting by mail: all mail-in ballots will have prepaid postage; any ballot postmarked by Election Day will be counted; voters whose signatures don’t match will be given a chance to explain themselves; and community groups will be allowed to deliver ballots for others. Elias’s team has won complete victories in three states and partial victories in four; the other cases are ongoing. “I have won in more states than I thought I would,” he said. One case involved the Wisconsin primary, in April, when tens of thousands of ballots were postmarked on or before Election Day but arrived late. Elias sued election officials, and the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the votes.
A couple wearing masks take their dog for a walk.
“You introduced me as your housemate, not your husband. What’s up with that?”
Cartoon by Julia Suits
In Elias’s suit in Florida, the state agreed to a settlement: it would launch a voter-education campaign and allow the maximum number of days for early voting. But on the central issue—counting all mail-in ballots that are postmarked before Election Day—Elias and his plaintiffs lost. Trump soon posted a bizarre tweet, urging Florida Republicans to vote by mail, a position that contradicted his earlier tirades. Mindy Finn, the C.E.O. of an analytics firm called Citizen Data, said her organization projected that far more Democrats than Republicans would vote by mail in Florida. “By polarizing vote by mail, Trump appears to have been depressing his own turnout,” she said.
Finn’s firm is predicting 4.2 million absentee ballots in Florida, and some observers worry that—given the unprecedented volume, the need to open each ballot by hand, and the shortage of workers—it will be nearly impossible to get them all processed before the deadline, on the Saturday after the election. Eddie Perez, of the Open Source Election Technology Institute, which focusses on elections and voting, told me, “My fear is that people will be drowning on Election Day.”
Intelligence analysts have assured Trump that there is no evidence that foreign adversaries will try to falsify mail-in ballots. But the spectre of interference lingers. According to the Mueller report, Russian agents made Florida a focus in 2016. Before the election, they sent spear-phishing e-mails to a hundred and twenty officials, attempting to hack into local election systems. A Senate intelligence report found that in at least two counties they gained entry to voter-registration rolls. The Russians also successfully hacked a Florida-based company that makes software for voter registration and check-in. Experts say that registration systems are especially vulnerable, because they are linked to the Internet. “If the Russians had pulled the trigger, there would have been utter chaos on Election Day,” Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, told me.
According to a former senior Obama Administration official, there was concern that Russian agents were also apparently experimenting with their capability to alter vote tallies. “That’s just what they do in elections in Russia,” another former senior official said. American intelligence officials say they have no evidence that the Russians changed any totals. It’s more likely, according to several former Obama Administration officials, that they were probing vulnerabilities in election systems across the country. “This was a sort of dry run,” one said.
But it’s not clear that officials looked very hard for evidence of vote tampering. After the 2016 election, only a handful of states conducted audits that would determine if electronic voting machines had been penetrated; the federal government did none. After an inquiry from Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, the Department of Homeland Security responded that it had no “mandate” to examine state voting machines. Wyden was indignant: “On what basis can the Administration make its claims regarding a lack of evidence of foreign interference if it hasn’t looked for it?”
A foreign adversary who wanted to sow dissension wouldn’t necessarily need to change the election results—which, given the decentralized nature of voting in the United States, would be difficult to do. “I don’t think changing the counts is what they are aiming for,” Laura Rosenberger, a foreign-policy adviser to Hillary Clinton in 2016, told me, of the Russians. “They want to cause doubt and confusion, so that you have a situation where everyone is fighting and no one accepts the legitimacy of the election.”
At the Reverend Holmes’s church, in Tallahassee, the congregants are anticipating November with a mixture of fear and hope. On a recent Sunday, Holmes said from the pulpit that the election would be a defining moment in American history, and that his parishioners should let nothing—not voter suppression, not the coronavirus—stand in the way of their casting ballots.
Drawing on the Book of Daniel, Holmes told the story of three Hebrew boys who refused to bow to King Nebuchadnezzar, even at the threat of being burned alive, because he was not the true and only God. “Nebuchadnezzar was so full of himself that he wanted his own statue—on Mt. Rushmore,” he said, eliciting knowing laughs from the pews. “But the three boys would not bow down to this paranoid, insecure king.” Quoting John Lewis, the late congressman and civil-rights leader, Holmes told the congregants that the boys who defied Nebuchadnezzar were getting into “good trouble”—the kind that people make when they refuse to yield to a tyrant. “Never be afraid to make noise,” he said, “to get into good trouble—necessary trouble.”
Holmes’s right-wing counterparts have been spreading a more combative message. In north Florida, which Trump dominated in the 2016 elections, white evangelists fill the airwaves with apocalyptic prophecies. One such commentator is the Reverend Gene A. Youngblood, the pastor of the First Conservative Baptist Church in Jacksonville, who hosts a radio show called “Let’s Face the Issues.”
In a recent broadcast, Youngblood warned of a country besieged by the forces of Marxism, state control, and anarchy. The summer’s protests against police brutality, he said, had brought a flood of chaos and crime. “We’ve seen blocks and blocks and blocks of our major cities burned and destroyed by vandals and thugs of Black Lives Matter,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is like a cancer—it is spreading across the whole body that we call the United States of America.”
Youngblood’s darkest vision was of the coronavirus, which the “socialist-Marxist-B.L.M.-communist Democratic Party” had used to “bring in fear and anxiety in America as never before.” The purpose, he maintained, was to impose forced vaccinations, which Bill Gates and the government would use to implant a chip that allowed them to control citizens. Youngblood said that it was imperative for Christians to vote in November. If they failed to turn out, he said, “we will lose the battle, and we will have a socialist, communist, dictatorship form of government in America.”
To prepare for the elections, each side is assembling an army of volunteers and lawyers to observe voting and counting. Juan Peñalosa, the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, told me that he was deploying at least three thousand lawyers, trained in election law, to weigh in on ballot disputes in the state’s nearly six thousand precincts. The Trump campaign says that it is marshalling fifty thousand poll watchers to work in fifteen key states, presumably including Florida.
This November marks the first Presidential election since 1980 in which the Republican National Committee will not be bound by a court decree that has tightly limited its activities around voting sites. The decree arose from a Democratic lawsuit charging that, in a New Jersey governor’s race, off-duty police officers, some carrying guns and wearing armbands that read “National Ballot Security Task Force,” had intimidated Black voters. “We fully expect Trump volunteers to be at every polling place in the state on Election Day,” Peñalosa said.
The Reverend Holmes seemed unswayed. For years, he has urged his congregation to take part in the early voting of Souls to the Polls. After his sermon, he led about a hundred members on a walk to the county courthouse, where many of them cast early ballots for the statewide primary on August 18th. Holmes’s march was given a police escort, and many candidates came along to solicit parishioners’ support.
One member of the congregation, an eighty-year-old named William Brown, grew up in Mulberry, a phosphate-mining town in central Florida. The white neighborhoods, he recalled, were demarcated by hedgerows and railroad tracks, which no sane Black person would go past. For years, the center of Mulberry was marked by a hulking tree where many Black men were lynched. In the nineteen-fifties and sixties, Brown told me, voting was impossible for a Black person in Mulberry. “There was never any issue,” he said. “I didn’t even think about it.”
Brown joined the Army and saw the world, and while he was away America changed a little. In 1984, at the age of forty-four, he went to the polls for the first time—to vote, he said, for “whichever Democrat was running against Reagan.” His candidate, Walter Mondale, lost badly. But he hasn’t missed an election since, and he looks forward to voting in November. “Oh, Lord,” he said. “I’m not done yet.”♦
Published in the print edition of the September 7, 2020, issue, with the headline “The Uncounted.”
Dexter Filkins is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “The Forever War,” which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.