Why Florida’s influence on US elections will only get stronger

People here in Florida love a good election. Not only will we stand in line to vote longer than we’ll stand in line for Space Mountain, we’ll also drag out counting the ballots afterward. Perhaps that’s because following the ups and downs of our recounts can remind you of riding Space Mountain.

Remember 2000, when the wrangling over the ballots in the presidential race went on for three weeks, guaranteeing no one in Florida would ever again name a child Chad? Now it’s happening again with not one, not two, but three statewide races undergoing a recount amid a blizzard of lawsuits:

1. The governor, health-care billionaire and Trump admirer Rick Scott, is battling incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, an aging moderate Democrat who flew on the space shuttle and once hunted Everglades pythons with a machete.

2. Trump-endorsed Fox News regular Ron DeSantis is up against Bernie-backed progressive Andrew Gillum.

3. A pro-NRA, Big Sugar-supported candidate named Matt Caldwell is vying for the job of agriculture commissioner (who’s in charge of issuing concealed-weapons permits, because . . . Florida) against a pro-gun control marijuana lobbyist named Nikki Fried.

In each case, the margin separating the candidates is razor-thin. In that last race, the lead has even changed from Caldwell to Fried. This is, of course, all going on amid the usual Florida weirdness: the naked burglar who broke into a restaurant to eat ramen and play bongos; the man who dressed as a woman to buy a $4,000 puppy with a stolen credit card; and the guy who was released from jail and tried to steal a car from the parking lot, only to discover it had a cop inside.

Yet the recount mess is the reason a federal judge declared Florida to be “the laughingstock of the world.” Go figure.

Usually what happens in Florida is regarded by the rest of the country as amusing (woman caught shoplifting while dressed as a turkey) or horrifying (the Parkland shooting). But when it comes to elections, what happens in Florida has an impact on the nation as a whole.

Since 1964 Florida has gone for the winning presidential candidate every time but one (1992, Clinton vs. Bush). Since 1924 not one Republican candidate has won the presidency while losing Florida.

If Nelson hangs onto his seat, the Senate will maintain the same balance between Republicans and Democrats that it’s had for the past two years. If Scott wins, Trump gets more leeway from the upper chamber of Congress. Meanwhile, whoever wins the DeSantis-Gillum challenge gets to appoint three Florida Supreme Court justices, which is likely to become important to the outcome of the 2020 presidential race.

So, once again, the nation turns its lonely eyes to the phallic-shaped playground state, amazed at our electoral antics.

“Dear America,” Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell wrote. “We’re sorry we keep screwing up Democracy. Love, Florida.”

Actually, though, we’re not screwing up Democracy. We’re putting it to the test.

Florida is far from the only state with cranky voting machines, badly designed ballots and politicians ready to cry “fraud!” at the drop of a MAGA hat. But you don’t hear about them as much because the vote margins there tend to be wide enough that no recount is required.

In Florida, though, the population is split just like America is. Our 21 million residents (third-most in the nation, ahead of New York) include every demographic stratum. We’ve got Medicare fraudsters, professional mermaids, uniformed Scientologists, spam kings, strip-club moguls, retired CIA agents, hurricane refugees and monkey breeders, all crammed together in a 30-mile strip along the coast or along the highway connecting the theme parks.