How does an election recount work?
On Election Day plus two in Florida — and with thousands of Florida votes still untallied — this much was clear: The races for Florida’s governor, a U.S. Senate seat, and the state’s agricultural commissioner appeared headed for recounts.
But the critical question of how many of those votes have been cast and for whom — and the likelihood of whether they will be counted in the end — remained murky.
Here is what the Miami Herald could determine: The Herald called election supervisors in all 67 Florida counties Thursday afternoon and was told that at least 8,000 ballots — and possibly many more — remained to be counted across the state. Those were mostly “provisional votes” — votes cast by individuals who lacked the proper ID or wound up at the wrong polling place. In some cases, elections officials could determine later through their own records whether the ballots were valid. In others, voters had until 5 p.m. Thursday to submit proper identification.
Some of the counties said they would make final determinations on these ballots on Friday.
Even if every one of those provisional votes were cast in favor of Democrats — and every one was accepted as valid — it would be insufficient to alter the outcome of either the governor’s race, in which Republican Ron DeSantis held a lead of just over 36,000 votes over Democrat Andrew Gillum, or the U.S. Senate race, in which Republican Rick Scott led Democrat Bill Nelson by just under 16,000 votes.
They could, however, be decisive in the agriculture-commissioner race, in which Democrat Nikki Fried held a slim lead of nearly 3,000 votes over Republican Matt Caldwell.
Meanwhile, a host of questions remained in a familiar place: Broward County, which featured prominently in the recount of the 2000 presidential election. As of late Thursday afternoon, it was the only Florida county that had not finished tabulating ballots cast during early voting and was one of two counties that had not finished counting ballots submitted by mail.
There were two late developments, however: Around 8 p.m, the Broward supervisor of elections announced that those votes had finally been counted, and Rick Scott, the governor who doubles as a Senate candidate careening toward a recount, announced he was suing the Broward elections supervisor, Democrat Brenda Snipes, for taking as long as she had to count the votes.
Throughout the state, overseas and military voters — a very small pool — still had a few days for their ballots to arrive by mail and be counted. Historically, military votes do not favor Democrats.
Broward, Florida’s second-largest county, is a Democratic stronghold, and the tally favored Democrats by a margin of two-to-one. It was not clear Thursday evening whether all of Broward’s freshly counted votes were included in the running statewide tally.
Another potentially significant Broward-based mystery is what explains a discrepancy in the number of votes cast in the governor’s race and the Senate race. The latest vote totals showed that roughly 25,000 Broward County voters who cast a ballot for governor skipped the U.S. Senate race. That made it an extreme outlier among Florida counties.
It apparently wasn’t a case of ballot fatigue from voters slogging through the long list of contests and deciding the heck with it. The Senate candidates appeared on the Broward ballot before the candidates for governor.
The Nelson campaign suggested it could have been the result of a faulty ballot scanner or scanners.
While that might appear to augur well for Nelson’s chances, there’s no guarantee how many, if any, of those ballots will actually turn into votes, even if the voters who cast them intended to vote for Nelson, said Ned Foley an Ohio State law professor and author of “Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States.”
Here’s what will happen with those “under votes”: All counties must submit their unofficial results to the state on Saturday. At that time, if the spread in the Senate race is less than half of a percentage point — which seemed a near certainty — there will be an automatic machine recount. At that time, the “under vote” ballots could be sidetracked and set aside for examination by hand in the event a hand count is necessary.
However, a hand count only occurs if the spread is less than one-fourth of a percentage point — as the unofficial count currently shows, but barely.
“It’s a little early to say how it’s going to play out,” Foley said. “But it’s a lot harder to count a vote that hasn’t been cast.”
The largest number of provisional ballots was tallied in Palm Beach County, which estimated that there were 1,800 to 2,000. Miami-Dade County had just under 1,000 provisional ballots, while Hillsborough County was sorting through roughly 750 provisional ballots.
Miami-Dade ultimately accepted approximately one in five of that total. It was unknown late Thursday how many Broward had accepted.
Generally, most provisional ballots are accepted, said Dan Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida.
“Under votes” are likely to become rarer in the future as more counties switch to EViD operating systems, which let poll workers verify voters’ information electronically when checking them in to vote.
For the 2014 general election, there were about 9,000 provisional ballots issued statewide, Smith said. About 66 percent of those were accepted.
“Provisional ballots are becoming rarer but there’s an increased likelihood they’re going to be accepted,” Smith said.
Miami Herald staff writer Alex Harris and Nicholas Nehamas and McClatchy DC bureau staff writer Kevin G. Hall contributed to this report.