Broward County

Broward volunteers finish manual recount of Senate race at lightning speed

Even with a late start to the morning, volunteers for Broward County finished the manual recount for the U.S. Senate race Friday in under two hours — before the catered lunch even arrived.

Broward County Canvassing Board Attorney René Harrod announced that the volunteers were done for the day at 10 a.m. Any questionable ballots the volunteers discovered in the recount were turned over to be examined by the county’s canvassing board, which reviewed them by hand until about 7 p.m.

Many of the volunteers will return Saturday to count the state agriculture commissioner race and Sunday to count a local commission race. Just six votes separate the candidates in the nonpartisan West Park Commission Seat 1 race between Anthony Dorset, who narrowly leads, and Katrina Touchstone.

Broward County’s lightning speed on counting the vote appears to be due to the hundreds of volunteers at work, as well as a large number of undervotes — ballots where voters simply left the race blank.

Joseph D’Alessandro, Broward’s director of election planning and development, said the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office counted 449 overvotes and 30,447 undervotes Friday, attributing the number to people choosing to leave the race blank and not an issue with the ballot design.

“That’s not dramatic. That’s normal,” he said.

But a Herald/Times analysis of the combined number of overvotes and undervotes indicates otherwise, with Broward having the highest combined number in the Senate race in the state. The next highest total, at about 17,000, comes from Walton County in the Florida Panhandle.

It’s also a stark contrast to the number of overvotes and undervotes combined in the governor’s race — about 6,000 in Broward — and the number in the commissioner of agriculture race — about 22,000 in Broward.

Democrats have said the positioning of the Senate race, directly below the ballot instructions that took up most of the left-hand column, cost Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson votes. Nelson’s legal team hoped that a mechanical error was behind the undervote, and that Nelson could pull in scores of uncounted votes in the famously liberal Broward.

But among the 30,447 ballots the canvassing board received and combed through, a large proportion of the total batch were undisputed ballots in which voters simply left the Senate race blank. Those ballots, marked by yellow sticky notes, seemed to vastly outnumber the disputed ballots characterized by errant pen strokes or unconventional markings, and marked by green sticky notes. The waste bin at the canvassing board’s feet quickly filled up with those little yellow papers.

Joanna Burgos, a senior adviser of Nelson’s opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, said she was pleased to see the amount of undisputed undervotes dwarf the overvotes. She said Nelson had a “zero chance of winning.”

“It’s mathematically impossible with the ballots we saw undisputed today that Bill Nelson can close this gap,” Burgos said.

During the review process, the canvassing board would project disputed ballots on a large screen and determine voter intent if evidence of it was present. For example, a voter who consistently circled his or her preferred candidates instead of bubbling them in saw their vote be counted by the board, while someone who was inconsistent and unclear in their markings had their vote invalidated.

Both parties gained votes this way, but Republicans contend that Nelson’s gains will not be enough to eat into his deficit of more than 12,000 votes.

The canvassing board said it would release its tally from the manual recount Saturday, but attorneys for Scott and Nelson said they planned to file a public records request Friday night to see the tally sooner.

D’Alessandro said Broward will release the manually recounted results of the Senate race, the agriculture commissioner race and the local race on Sunday. The manual recount deadline to turn over results to the state is noon Sunday.

Those numbers are supposed to be combined with results from the previous machine recount, but Broward missed the state deadline by two minutes on Thursday. Legally that means the state would add the manually recounted numbers to the original total that Broward turned in to the state at noon Nov. 10, and ignore the machine-recount totals.

But Rick Scott’s campaign lawyer has asked Secretary of State Ken Detzner to use Broward’s recounted numbers instead, in which Scott actually made a net gain of about 700 votes.

“The law is clear: when a canvassing board completes a recount process by the statutory deadline, as it did yesterday in a public meeting in Broward County, those results are valid,” the statement read.

When Broward elections officials announced Thursday that they had missed the deadline to turn in to the state the machine recount totals, they also said they had improperly handled ballots and “comingled” about 2,040 votes. The source of the problem was still not clear Friday afternoon.

Detzner’s lawyer, Gary Holland, said the state will stand by the law and use Broward’s first count and not the machine recount. He said Broward was using the overvotes and undervotes from the machine recount.

The three-person canvassing board must review all counted ballots, and as of 10 a.m. there appeared to be a significant backlog for the judges to consider. Most of the ballots the judges reviewed Friday morning appeared to be clear undervotes.

Volunteers will reassemble Saturday at 7 a.m. to count the agriculture commission race between Democrat Nicole “Nikki” Fried and Republican Matt Caldwell. D’Alessandro said workers will count 123 overvotes and 21,969 undervotes.