Elections

How Miami-Dade won the Florida recount race, and why Broward is losing it.

Votes recounting at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Doral

Lawyers and other observers from the three races involved in the statewide recount sit at a table inside the Miami-Dade Elections Department on Monday, November 12, 2018.
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Lawyers and other observers from the three races involved in the statewide recount sit at a table inside the Miami-Dade Elections Department on Monday, November 12, 2018.

The Election Day polls hadn’t been closed more than 48 hours when Miami-Dade’s elections supervisor began prepping to count the votes again.

“We are going into three possible statewide recounts,” Christina White said during a Thursday afternoon meeting of the panel that oversees the county’s elections. “What I would like is to have the canvassing board allow my department to take whatever preparations are necessary to staff and get ready for that recount.”

Permission given, White ordered staff to begin separating out the first page — the page with the three races in question — of more than 800,000 ballots cast in Miami-Dade Thursday night. When Tallahassee officially declared a statewide recount Saturday afternoon, Miami-Dade was able to begin processing the separated ballots within hours and was halfway done with its entire recount by Monday morning.

Not so at Broward’s elections department, which was continuing to separate ballots Monday evening and predicting the start of the actual recount was still hours away.

“I think the contrast is pretty clear,” said Alex Penelas, a Democrat and former mayor of Miami-Dade who was in office during his county’s own election blow-ups in 2000 and 2002. “There’s a stark comparison. It’s Miami-Dade versus Broward.”

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Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda C. Snipes at her offices in Lauderhill, Florida, as the canvassing board reviews ballots on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Republican efforts to cast the state-mandated recount process as something akin to a fraud are helping magnify the problems in Broward, which was later than Miami-Dade in wrapping up its vote counts last week. President Donald Trump declared on Twitter Monday morning that “An honest vote is no longer possible” even though it was Florida law that triggered the ongoing recounts for three unusually close statewide contests.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is narrowly ahead of incumbent Bill Nelson in the Senate race, has alleged criminal wrongdoing at the Broward elections department, which is run by an elected Democrat, Supervisor Brenda Snipes. Florida election monitors, assigned by Scott’s administration, reported no wrongdoing, and the state’s law enforcement administrators declined to investigate.

On Monday, Snipes brushed off criticism as uninformed when reporters asked her about Trump.

“I don’t know where the president gets his information,” she said.

White is a 16-year county employee who began working at Miami-Dade’s elections department in 2006. Gimenez appointed her elections supervisor in 2015, ahead of the high-stakes 2016 presidential election. The county endured national embarrassment in 2012 for lines at the polls on Election Night that were long enough to draw a mention from then-President Barack Obama. In 2016, Miami-Dade earned praise for a relatively smooth operation on Election Day. White is not registered with a political party.

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Christina White, Miami-Dade County’s elections supervisor, at a canvassing board meeting on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, at the start of a statewide recount. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Snipes is a retired teacher, principal and school administrator appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, to take over Broward’s elections department in 2003 after he suspended her predecessor, Miriam Oliphant, amid troubles with the county’s elections operation. Snipes has been reelected to her post four times since her appointment. Bush, who campaigned for Scott in 2018, on Monday said Snipes should be removed from her office on similar grounds after the recount ends.

All Florida counties have until 3 p.m. Thursday to turn in their results from the machine recounts triggered Saturday by the tight margins in the races for governor, senator and agriculture commissioner. Republicans are ahead in the governor and senate races, and a Democrat is leading for agriculture commissioner. Snipes said Monday she was confident Broward would make the deadline, thanks to the county’s growing number of machines that will be turned on once the ballots are properly separated.

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A county worker processes ballots for a statewide recount at the Miami-Dade Elections Department’s headquarters in Doral on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. By Monday afternoon, Miami-Dade officials were halfway through recounting more than 800,000 ballots cast. But Broward had yet to begin recounting more than 700,000 ballots. Broward Elections Department C.M. GUERRERO

Broward is using 12 high-speed counting machines to mow through more than 700,000 ballots. Fred Bellis, Broward’s elections operations coordinator, said he’s providing meals and coffee inside the processing room so staffers can continue to work 12-hour shifts around the clock. For the August primary, Broward only had five high-speed machines. Snipes decided to buy three more (at $115,000 a pop) to beef up for Election Day, and another four are on loan from the manufacturer.

Bellis said he has full confidence that the county will finish by Thursday’s deadline, even though sorting out the first page of the ballot likely won’t be done until late Monday or early Tuesday.

Broward didn’t get a head start on sorting the ballots, with no work done before the count was ordered Saturday by Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

While Miami-Dade had finished its count for the general election by Friday morning, Broward was still tallying votes through Saturday morning.

Broward started the recount window with about about 20 percent fewer votes to count than Miami-Dade did. Miami-Dade was home to about one out of every 10 votes cast in Florida for the 2018 general election, for a total of 813,087 ballots to count again. That’s more than any other county in Florida. Broward has the second largest number, 714,859.

Broward still has days to complete the recount before the 3 p.m. Thursday state deadline. One factor in its favor: Broward has faster high-speed counting machines than Miami-Dade does, according to Miami-Dade officials familiar with both models.

Miami-Dade’s speedy pace also offers good news. Miami-Dade was far enough ahead on its recount Monday that White scaled back staffing in the afternoon, suggesting a large county doesn’t need the full five days allowed under Florida law at maximum pace.

Along with nine high-speed scanners counting stacks of ballots in its main tabulation room, Miami-Dade Elections converted the employee lounge to a secondary processing center with about two dozen temporary employees working around the clock on machines that scan just one ballot at a time.

By Monday afternoon, the room was empty and White said she had canceled overnight shifts there.

“That was just for us to get an edge in terms of productivity,” White said of the room with slower machines. After Election Day, Miami-Dade put in a rush order to rent five new high-speed machines from Omaha, Nebraska, home to the equipment’s manufacturer. They arrived Monday afternoon. Hours later, though, the new high-speed machines still were not operating and the room with the slower scanners was once again fully staffed.

White had said she was feeling confident about the midday pace.

“I think we’re doing great so far,” she said.

Miami-Dade’s brisk recount pace and praise at Broward’s expense has handed fodder to critics of a new state amendment requiring all counties to elect their election supervisors by 2024. Most do already. Miami-Dade unsuccessfully sued to block Amendment 10 from the November ballot. It passed with 63 percent of the vote statewide, and Miami-Dade leaders are using Broward’s election missteps as proof the constitutional change was a bad idea.

“I’m proud we’re not the ones in the mess,” Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, a Republican in a nonpartisan post, said during a walk through the county’s elections department in Doral. “We have professionals here.”

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