On the hunt for new votes, Democrats find a trickle in the blue county of Miami-Dade

Miami-Dade County counts provisional ballots

Miami-Dade County counts provisional ballots on Thursday, November 8, 2018 at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department.
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Miami-Dade County counts provisional ballots on Thursday, November 8, 2018 at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department.

The hunt for new votes in Florida’s razor-thin elections for governor, senator and agriculture commissioner yielded little in Miami-Dade County on Thursday, with only 207 new ballots added to the tally.

Three people who sit on the Miami-Dade canvassing board reviewed 917 provisional ballots during an afternoon meeting, deciding whether to accept or reject the ballots filled out by people who tried to vote in person but were turned away.

A rejected voter has the right to fill out a provisional ballot to be decided later by appointed canvassing boards at public meetings that are usually obscure but have suddenly become critical as Florida prepares to recount all ballots cast for governor, senator and agriculture commissioner.

The Miami-Dade County Elections Department canvassing board reviews uncounted ballots on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Doral. Christian Colon ccolon@mcclatchy.com

Daniel Poterek, a lawyer for Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent trailing Gov. Rick Scott in the Senate race by about 15,000 votes as of Thursday night, won a recess while he argued about the election rules governing two ballots that were missing signatures.

“When you vote in person, you absolutely sign an affirmation,” Poterek said, referring to the digital sign-in pad that voters use as part of the check-in process. “Shouldn’t you compare the provisional ballot numbers to the signatures that would be in your thumb drive before rejecting?”

At the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Doral, canvassing board members review uncounted ballots on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Christian Colón ccolon@mcclatchy.com

The board members, Miami-Dade judges Tanya Brinkley and Victoria Ferrer, and county elections supervisor Christina White, agreed to hold off on a final decision until they reconvene Friday morning and can review whatever case law Poterek can submit. If an additional two votes are counted in Miami-Dade, they would represent .00025 percent of the 812,865 ballots cast there.

But in recount skirmishes, decimals matter. Races that wind up with margins of 0.5 percent or less by Saturday at noon get tossed into machine recounts, where every county must scan all of its ballots again. Miami-Dade had two weeks to scan 302,000 ballots cast in 28 early voting sites, and scanned another 256,000 at more than 150 polling places on Election Day.

Under state law, the county would have until Thursday, Nov. 15, at 3 p.m. to rescan each of those again, all in Miami-Dade’s Elections Department headquarters in Doral. County workers also will have to scan the more than 260,000 mail-in ballots received since they went out in early October.

White said she plans to have workers scanning ballots 24 hours a day, at least when the process starts Saturday. State rules require at least two members of the canvassing board, or their alternates, to be there to witness the recount. Brinkley and Ferrer agreed to clear their schedules for the process.

Tiny changes in the vote tally throughout Florida could push races out of recount range. On Thursday night, Republican Ron DeSantis was ahead of Democrat Andrew Gillum by .44 percent with 8.2 million votes cast for governor. Nelson and Scott are within .18 percent of each other. In the agriculture race, Democrat Nikki Fried is ahead of Republican Matt Caldwell by less than 0.05 percent.

The Miami-Dade County Elections Department reviews uncounted ballots on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 in Doral. Christian Colón ccolon@mcclatchy.com

Miami-Dade holds more promise for Democrats, given the partisan tilt of the county. Nelson clobbered Scott by 170,000 votes in Miami-Dade, and Gillum beat DeSantis by 167,000.

The 971 provisional ballots reviewed Thursday represent the final ballots to be added to Miami-Dade’s tally, besides stray overseas ballots that can continue to arrive through next week.

The canvassing board members rejected most of the ballots that came before them, and the proceedings offered an extended lesson in mistakes people can make when trying to vote.

More than 290 of the provisional ballots were rejected because the person who filled them out had registered too late to participate in the Nov. 6 election. While 15 states allow voters to register the day of an election, Florida cuts off registration 29 days before an election.

“If I have no discretion, there is nothing that I can do,” Ferrer said in joining a unanimous vote to reject a batch of ballots.

Thirty-five ballots were rejected because the voters showed up at the wrong precinct on Election Day. While voters could visit any of the 28 early-voting sites up until 48 hours before Election Day, they had to report to their assigned neighborhood precinct on Tuesday. The rejections drew a protest from representatives of the League of Women Voters.

“People get confused, and they get their [voter registration] cards late,” said Maribel Balbin, a past president of the group. “Why are they being penalized?”

Each precinct may have different local races, so requesting a provisional ballot at the wrong place can have voters picking candidates in elections that don’t apply to them.

“We share your concerns,” Brinkley said in response to the protests about confused voters, “but, regrettably, we have to follow the law.”

Another 108 provisional ballots were rejected after Elections staff determined they were filled out by people who had already voted once in the same election.

Despite being turned away at a polling place for having voted, these voters asked for provisional ballots. Michael Valdes, an assistant county attorney, said evidence of someone attempting to knowingly vote twice can constitute a criminal violation, and that the information will be sent on to Miami-Dade prosecutors for review.

Most of the canvassing board’s approval work was performed by Elections staff, which had recommended accepting 198 provisional ballots that looked legitimate. Those were sent on to be counted without discussion. The board also voted to approve another nine after determining they were filled out by people who were eligible to vote.

Two reprieves came for adult children whose parents of the same name apparently filled out and submitted mail-in ballots requested by their offspring. Those ballots were rejected for mismatched signatures, but the person who requested the mail-in ballot is marked as having voted — albeit unsuccessfully.

When the children showed up to vote in person, they were flagged as having already voted by mail. The canvassing board was able to sort out the circumstances by matching signatures on file for each voter, and conclude both properly voted, and only once.

“The mother signed the daughter’s vote-by-mail ballot. So it was rejected,” White explained. “The daughter goes to vote. We told her she has voted already. ... Let’s make sure the signature matches, and that everything else was good with it.”

They were, and those two rejected ballots were stamped with green-inked “ACCEPTED AS LEGAL” stamps.

From there, the ballots went to the counting area where county workers were ready to scan them. As 10 p.m. approached, the county had yet to tabulate the new results and report which candidates benefited from the 207 extra votes.