Florida orders first statewide hand recounts ever, as legal fights continue

An unprecedented statewide hand recount is now under way in the Sunshine State, further extending a muddled, high stakes battle over every last vote in Florida’s crucial U.S. Senate race.

But, barring a legal challenge, the race for governor is over.

Following a five-day machine recount of the more than 8.3 million votes cast in the Nov. 6 election, Secretary of State Ken Detzner ordered hand recounts Thursday afternoon in the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Bill Nelson and Gov. Rick Scott, and also the race for agriculture commissioner between Nicole “Nikki” Fried and Matt Caldwell. The race for governor, which also went through a machine recount, was outside the margins that trigger a manual recount as new tallies came in, making Republican former congressman Ron DeSantis the governor-elect a full nine days after Democrat Andrew Gillum first conceded.

“I remain humbled by your support and the great honor the people of Florida have shown me as I prepare to serve as your next governor,” DeSantis said in a statement.

Gillum, who explicitly revoked his election night concession Saturday as a machine recount began, did not re-concede Thursday, if there is such a thing.

But DeSantis said the campaign must end and “give way to governing and bringing people together to secure Florida’s future.”

Detzner’s manual recount order gives canvassing boards in the state’s 67 counties three hectic days to pore over thousands of ballots that were rejected by machines because of “overvotes” — when a voter appears to have chosen more than one candidate in a race — or “undervotes,” in which a voter appears to have skipped a race altogether. With the help of state guidelines, the canvassing boards, which are allowed to enlist the help of volunteers, will try to determine how these voters intended to vote.

It’s unclear how many such overvotes and undervotes exist in the U.S. Senate race. A Herald/Times analysis of state and county data shows the number could be between 35,000 and 118,000. But the determination on whether any of those ballots will count — and the ability of the state’s elections supervisors to get through all the ballots — will be crucial to Nelson’s long-shot bid to keep his seat.

“I continue to expect that 12,500 [vote] margin to continue to go down and ultimately disappear entirely,” Marc Elias, an elections attorney for the Nelson campaign, told reporters in an afternoon conference call. The hand recount “will ultimately I believe not only narrow the margin but very well may reverse it entirely,” he said.

The race between Nelson and Scott remains extremely tight, and both campaigns continued to fight in court Thursday over ballots and deadlines that could swing how many votes are included in the manual recount and how long elections supervisors have to count them. Following the statewide machine recount over the past five days, new totals showed Scott leading Nelson by 12,603 votes, a tiny increase over his 0.15 percent lead Saturday.

As the numbers updated, Scott released a statement calling on Nelson to request an end to the recount and concede the race. Under Florida law, Nelson, who fell further behind Scott in the machine recount, can stop the hand recount in the Senate race by requesting that the process end.

Brenda Snipes, elections supervisor for Broward County, talks to workers during the recount. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

“Last week, Florida voters elected me as their next U.S. Senator and now the ballots have been counted twice,” Scott said. “I am incredibly proud and humbled by the opportunity to serve Florida in Washington. Our state needs to move forward. We need to put this election behind us, and it is time for Bill Nelson to respect the will of the voters and graciously bring this process to an end rather than proceed with yet another count of the votes — which will yield the same result, and bring more embarrassment to the state that we both love and have served.”

Nelson’s chances of closing Scott’s lead rely heavily on whether he can pick up a significant number of votes through the hand recount, and whether he can also gain on Scott by coaxing thousands of voters with rejected mail-in and provisional ballots to take advantage of a new window to cure signature problems that caused their votes to be deemed invalid. In Tallahassee Thursday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker gave voters whose ballots were rejected over mismatched signatures until 5 p.m. Saturday to fix the problem.

More than 4,000 such votes exist, perhaps more. The actual number remains unknown. An appeal and request for stay filed by the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee was rejected by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

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A Republican Party observer, right, watches as an employee at the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections office goes through a stack of damaged ballots on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in West Palm Beach, Fla. A federal judge slammed Florida on Thursday for repeatedly failing to anticipate election problems. Wilfredo Lee AP

Florida law requires a machine recount for any race decided by one half of one percentage point or less, and all three races were within the margins when elections supervisors submitted their unofficial results Saturday to the state. As required by law, Detzner quickly gave the counties’ canvassing boards five days to run their voting totals again in the three races to confirm whether any fell within one quarter of one percentage point, the margin by which Florida law requires a hand recount.

DeSantis’ nearly 34,000 vote lead held Thursday as the counties reported their tallies, keeping him above the quarter-point threshold and making him Florida’s governor-elect barring a legal challenge from Gillum. But, as expected, the margins in the U.S. Senate and agriculture commissioner races remained under the threshold, requiring hand recounts of overvotes and undervotes.

Now, the canvassing boards and teams of at least two volunteers — with at least one Republican and one Democrat on each team — will pore over thousands of ballots and report back to Detzner. State law requires that the state’s canvassing boards conclude that process by Sunday, so that Florida’s elections canvassing commission can certify the results of the election by Tuesday.

Some counties, including Miami-Dade, began manually recounting ballots Thursday evening.

A longtime former elections supervisor, Ion Sancho of Tallahassee, testified in Walker’s courtroom during an afternoon hearing Thursday that manual recounts can attract large, unruly and highly partisan crowds that could exacerbate already tense situations.

“Pronouncements, outbursts, demonstrations all increase tensions,” Sancho said.

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Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher checks her watch as she talks to an employee at the Supervisor of Elections office during a recount on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in West Palm Beach, Fla. Wilfredo Lee AP

Hillsborough County decided against turning in its recount numbers Thursday after vote totals dropped by more than 800 ballots from its original count. Palm Beach County blew the 3 p.m. deadline after its aging machines malfunctioned. And Broward County — ground zero for every unfounded elections fraud conspiracy in the U.S. the last week — announced that it had made the deadline only to later admit it had missed it by two minutes.

“Basically I just worked my ass off for nothing,” said Joe D’Alessandro, Broward’s director of election planning and development. “What caused it was my unfamiliarity with [the Florida Division of Elections] website.”

D’Alessandro also said that elections staff in Broward believe that the county’s vote tallies dropped by hundreds — thousands in the case of the U.S. Senate race — because ballots were improperly “co-mingled” during the recount.

“We did not correctly handle the ballots,” he said. “We are going to look into that and see what took place.”

Susan Bucher, the elections supervisor in Palm Beach, explained Thursday that she could have finished the machine recount — maybe by Dec. 15.

Nelson’s campaign had hoped to extend Saturday’s deadline to allow Bucher the time to submit her results, but Walker, the federal judge, sharply criticized Bucher and said he couldn’t write a blank check for new time to finish a recount. He also refused to order Florida’s elections supervisors to turn over the names of voters with rejected ballots.

“I am not going to be used by either party to obtain information to reach out and target individual voters based on their party affiliation,” Walker said. “That’s just the kind of gamesmanship that will undermine the electoral process. I will have no part of it.”

The vote totals — both those included and those left out of the new, unofficial state election results — weren’t so significant that they would have changed the outcome of any of the races or altered whether a manual recount was ordered. Bigger decisions are on the way as Walker weighs yet another lawsuit challenging the state’s methods for analyzing undervotes and overvotes. Also, in state court Thursday, Common Cause won an order allowing Broward Supervisor Brenda Snipes to continue tallying legally submitted votes that remained uncounted by last Saturday’s deadline.

In Florida’s most narrow statewide race, Fried, who may be the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida when the recounts are over, might have the most to lose of any candidate. Her lead over Caldwell is a narrow 5,307 votes.

She declared victory (again) Thursday. But Caldwell said he hopes workers will “uncover the truth” about what happened in Broward County.

“Brenda Snipes’ staggering incompetence threatens the legitimacy of Florida’s elections,” Caldwell said. “We will keep fighting to ensure every legally cast vote is counted so Floridians can know the integrity of the electoral process has been protected.”

Tampa Bay Times reporters Steve Contorno and Emily Mahoney, Miami Herald reporters Samantha Gross, Kyra Gurney, Douglas Hanks, Alex Harris and Martin Vassolo, and McClatchy reporter Caitlin Ostroff contributed to this report.

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