The 2000 presidential election came down to the results in Florida. Then-Vice President Al Gore and then-Governor George W. Bush each needed Florida’s electoral votes to win a majority in the Electoral College and secure the presidency. The election night results showed Bush ahead of Gore by less than 1,800 votes in an election where a total of nearly six million votes had been cast. Over the weeks that followed, a series of legal and political battles occurred, ultimately culminating in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore, a ruling that continues to be debated through today.
The controversies over the 2000 presidential election stemmed in part from several ambiguous and outdated provisions of Florida’s election code. The code allowed the use of antiquated voting systems, contained a vague and underspecified standard for determining the validity of ballots, and provided little guidance concerning ballot design. The use of absentee ballot was heavily restricted, and provisional ballots had not yet been authorized. These and other deficiencies together contributed to one of the closest, mostly hotly contested and heavily scrutinized presidential elections in American history. The 2000 election brought unprecedented national scrutiny to virtually every aspect of the state’s election laws, casting their problems into stark relief.
Over the next two decades, the state legislature overhauled its election code, adopting a variety of fundamental reforms to make the voting process more accessible and reliable; enhance protections against mistake, irregularity, confusion, and fraud; and bolster public confidence in the process. Some of these reforms were invalidated in misguided rulings by an overly aggressive federal court that approached the issue in largely partisan terms. And a few others eliminated some of the state’s election integrity protections. As a whole, however, these reforms gave Florida one of the most robust, successful electoral systems in the nation. In contrast to the chaos accompanying Bush v. Gore, Florida was able to accommodate and efficiently conduct three statewide recounts during the 2018 election cycle, as well as a safe, smooth, successful presidential election in 2020 despite the unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19.
Florida’s election system has substantially expanded public participation compared to the 2000 presidential election, notwithstanding the substantial growth in the state’s population over that time.
Over those past two decades, Florida’s electoral system has not only been made more accessible, but in many respects more secure and easily administrable, as well. Though no system is perfect, Florida’s Election Code may serve as a model for other states as they seek to reform their own election laws. This study reviews the major reforms to the Florida Election Code that the state legislature has adopted in the years since Bush v. Gore, and offers a series of best practices concerning election administration and security that states should consider as policy reforms.