National News

Florida’s Senate Race Heads to the Wire in a Manual Recount

Posted November 16, 2018 2:27 p.m. EST

LAUDERHILL, Fla. — After a chaotic statewide machine recount left a high-profile Senate race still undecided, Florida on Friday set out in earnest on a manual recount of ballots cast in the midterm election, a daunting effort to examine problem ballots that must completed by Sunday.

Elections workers in the state’s 67 counties were examining tens of thousands of undervotes and overvotes — ballots with no vote cast in a key race, or too many votes — to try to determine voter intent.

First up is the high-profile Senate race, pitting the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, against the Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson. The two were separated by just 12,603 votes out of more than 8.1 million cast after the machine recount results were reported Thursday.

Also subject to a manual recount is the race for state agriculture commissioner, an even tighter contest in which the Democrat, Nikki Fried, is ahead of her Republican challenger, Matt Caldwell, by 5,307 votes.

The still-undeclared governor’s race escaped a second recount: Ron DeSantis, a conservative ally of President Donald Trump, held enough of a lead over Andrew Gillum, the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee, that no recount was ordered, though additional uncounted ballots remain the subject of lawsuits. Though the race is effectively over, Gillum has declined to concede until every vote is counted.

Broward County, the populous South Florida county around Fort Lauderdale, is a key to any hope Nelson might have of turning the race. Registered Democrats there outnumber Republicans by more than 2-1.

On Friday morning, two-person counting teams — along with representatives from each campaign and party — sat around 100 tables in an airy warehouse at the office of the supervisor of elections, poring over tens of thousands of ballots contained in 29 plastic bins, each labeled “Senate EV Sort.” Contested ballots for which voter intent could not be clearly established were turned over to the canvassing board for a ruling. And it went quickly: at 9:53 a.m., less than two hours after they began, the counting teams were finished.

Broward elections workers had started an hour after the 7 a.m. designated start time Friday, only the latest in a series of delays that have plagued the county. On Thursday, the results from Broward’s machine recount were rejected by the state for having been submitted two minutes after the 3 p.m. deadline. Scott’s campaign petitioned the state Friday to count them.

Already the target of widespread criticism, Broward’s elections supervisor, Brenda Snipes, described the recounting process as involving many moving parts. She said the county’s 714,000 ballots had been handled at least three times. “We accomplished what was an almost impossible task” with the machine recount, she said — but it wasn’t enough.

Miami-Dade County, which completed its machine count a day early, started reviewing about 10,000 ballots at 10 p.m. Thursday.

Further north, in Palm Beach County, where nearly 6,000 undervote and overvote ballots were being reviewed, manual recounts had been scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. but were delayed by about an hour. That county also missed Thursday’s recount deadline, blaming it on a collection of old machines that sputtered and overheated and slowed the count to a crawl.

The manual recount is one chapter in Florida’s seemingly never-ending election. A wave of more than a dozen dueling lawsuits have been filed in state and federal courts, each contesting some component of the election, from the validity of ballots with mismatched signatures to votes accepted by email.

Judge Mark E. Walker of the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, who vowed to work late nights and into the weekend to rule on the litany of lawsuits, issued new decisions late Thursday. In the first ruling, one that impacted Friday’s manual recount, the judge rejected a challenge to Florida’s voter intent rules governing a hand recount, a decision that further shrinks Nelson’s window to victory.

The federal lawsuit filed by Democrats targeted two standards that help determine voters’ intent in cases where they either use different kinds of marks to signal their choices, or write in words to help specify their intent. They provide specific instructions, and according to challengers, these instructions often rule out counting ballots which, they contend, ought to be counted.

“These rules have been used for nearly 10 years, and they are clear, uniform rules that election officials have been trained to apply,” Walker wrote. “To enjoin the use of these rules now would create a substantial hardship on the defendants.” He added that the rules help guide officials to count votes that otherwise would not have been counted. “This is in the public interest,” the ruling said.

In the second case, the judge rejected a League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause lawsuit that questioned Scott’s role in overseeing the election as both a Senate candidate and the governor — he sits on the state’s Elections Canvassing Commission, which certifies election results, and appoints two other members. The complaint accused Scott of using his office for an unfair advantage when he suggested state law enforcement officials investigate purported cases of fraud committed by Democrats during the election; they had sought a preliminary injunction requiring him to step aside on election matters.

Scott’s lawyer said Thursday that the governor would recuse himself from the canvassing board. In any case, Walker found that Scott had not improperly used his office. “Here, Scott has toed the line between imprudent campaign-trail rhetoric and problematic state action. But he has not crossed the line,” the judge ruled. “As a candidate, Scott can — and has — filed lawsuits. As a candidate, he can appear on television, post on social media, and even make baseless remarks about counties where populations cast majorities of ballots for his opponent,” the judge said. “What Scott cannot do is undercut the count and mandatory recount of votes from his perch as a public official.”

Scott, he added, while “sometimes careening perilously close to a due process violation” did not misuse his office. “As votes were still being counted, Scott asked — but did not order — state law enforcement to investigate two counties, citing no evidence for the investigation,” he said. “There is a crucial and important distinction between asking and ordering.”

Earlier Thursday, Walker allowed voters who had not been given enough time to resolve signature issues on their ballots until 5 p.m. Saturday. That ruling, which affects a portion of 4,000 initially rejected ballots, sent voters scurrying to their Supervisor of Elections offices to ensure their votes counted. Shirley Chapin, 55, a lawyer, was out of town in Colorado when she received a letter notifying her that her signature did not match. An independent who voted for Gillum in the governor’s race, she was furious, especially because she did not know what signature the voter bureau was trying to match. Was it the scribble she hurriedly wrote the day she got her Florida’s driver’s license, after five frustrating trips to the DMV?

She has now turned in an affidavit which she hopes will allow her ballot to be counted.

“I think every vote should count, and especially when they are doing a recount,” she said.