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Discrediting The Recount Process Takes Advantage Of Voters' Lack Of Understanding


In Florida, officials are still recounting ballots for U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner. Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that Democrats are trying to steal the election. And today President Trump told The Daily Caller that people vote illegally by changing their hat or shirt and then coming back into polling places to vote again. He did not provide any evidence. As NPR's Miles Parks reports, the strategy of discrediting the recount process takes advantage of voters' lack of understanding.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: In Taylor County, Fla., two county machines are set up. Two women are on stools feeding them ballots. Bigger counties have high-speed counting machines. But those are expensive. Here in Taylor, the machines tabulate ballots one at a time.


PARKS: Dana Southerland is the Taylor County supervisor of elections. She understands the pressure that's on her and every one of Florida's 67 counties to get this election right because of the political atmosphere.

DANA SOUTHERLAND: I think the whole political climate is charged. It's like they're Energizer bunnies that are just on overdrive with all the political mess that's going on.

PARKS: But as she and her staff work to count each ballot, unsubstantiated claims come from across the state, and even from President Trump, about tainted vote tallies and fraud. Another county election supervisor in Florida told me he's been inundated with calls related to the claims. Southerland said she hasn't received calls from voters in her county asking about fraud specifically. But when I asked her whether people here have an understanding of how the recount works, she gave an emphatic no.

SOUTHERLAND: Matter of fact, to start with, we had several voters that called and wanted to know when were they going to get to vote again because to them a recount was like a revote.

PARKS: Paul Gronke is an elections expert at Reed College in Oregon. He says that because Americans know so little about how elections work, they're more susceptible to political rhetoric.

PAUL GRONKE: Elections are complex. These are complex systems. It's sort of like a modern-day automobile. You don't really know what's going on underneath the hood. And hopefully we have trust. But when there's distrust raised in this modern technology, I think people are very quick to assume some sort of nefarious motives.

PARKS: Even though election experts like Gronke say that voter fraud is very rare, many Americans don't think so. An NPR/Marist Poll in September found that about a third of Americans think fraud is the biggest threat to fair elections. Gronke says the narrow race in Florida has put national attention on how it runs elections. But...

GRONKE: I'm not so sure if we looked at this microscopic level in some other states, which are not that competitive, that we might not see some of the same kinds of problems.

PARKS: Florida has actually done a lot since the infamous 2000 election to shore up its voting system. Long gone are the punch cards and hanging chads, replaced by paper ballots that are read by scanners. Florida requires voters to have photo ID. And as Florida's governor since 2011, Republican Senate candidate Rick Scott had a big role in changing the state's election laws in the name of security. The state reduced the number of days early voting can take place and added new restrictions for how new voters could be registered.

The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice lists Florida as one of a handful of states that have put in place significant voting restrictions over the past decade. But there are clearly still problems. Equipment in Palm Beach County is old, for instance. Then there's the election supervisor in Broward County. She's come under fire for a number of mismanagement problems, including mixing more than a dozen ballots that should have been rejected in with valid ballots. Dana Southerland says, as long as Florida is a bellwether for the nation's politics, its warts will be on full display.

SOUTHERLAND: Every election cycle - I don't think we'll ever overcome that. And quite honestly, a lot of elections are decided by Florida. So we will always be in the spotlight no matter what.

PARKS: Whether voters will be able to tell the difference however between isolated issues and widespread fraud remains to be seen. Miles Parks, NPR News, Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.