A room full of Miami-Dade election workers began a hand recount Thursday night of more than 10,000 problematic ballots cast in the U.S. Senate race, joined by a room full of lawyers and volunteers from both campaigns eager to contest votes for the other side.
The county that still hasn’t lived down its chaotic role in the 2000 presidential recount returned to the grueling manual reckoning required under Florida law for a pair of exceptionally close statewide races.
Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, leads incumbent Bill Nelson by about 12,000 votes statewide in the Senate contest, and Democrat Nikki Fried is ahead by about 5,000 over Republican Matt Caldwell in the race for agriculture commissioner. Miami-Dade plans to start the mandated hand recount of more than 30,000 problematic ballots in the agriculture race after it concludes the review of the Senate ballots.
The Senate recount officially began at 7:31 p.m., when the three-person canvassing board voted to launch the process. But the tedious inspection of 10,039 ballots would need to wait until election workers could re-calibrate ballot scanning machines and then isolate ballots with undervotes or overvotes for the Senate contest.
Counties have until noon Sunday to complete the mandated hand recounts, before the 2018 election results are certified in Tallahassee Monday. Although elections officials had said the counting would continue through the night Thursday, the canvassing board looked at the last of the early-voting ballots just before 1:30 a.m. and left. The recount is set to resume at 8 a.m. Friday.
While Dade was part of the circus in 2000, when Republican protesters disrupted a recount under way in the county’s downtown Miami offices during the infamous “Brooks Brothers Riot,” Miami-Dade finished its machine recount days ahead of time this week as Broward and Palm Beach struggled to meet a 3 p.m. deadline Thursday. Palm Beach gave up, and Broward said Thursday evening it had inadvertently filed its results two minutes late. The Secretary of State’s office said it would not accept Broward’s recount results, and instead would use the unofficial results the county filed on Nov. 10.
While the machine recount tackled more than 800,000 ballots cast in Miami-Dade, the hand recount is limited to uncounted ballots where an automated scanner could not detect a proper vote for one or both of the contests. Most of those flawed ballots are marked as undervotes — the term for a ballot where a machine concluded no vote was cast for one of the contests subject to a recount. Some are overvotes, where the voter appeared to select more than one candidate in a single contest.
Nelson is hoping the hand recount will reverse his fortunes and spare Democrats from losing both of the high-profile contests after a six-day machine recount failed to change Democrat Andrew Gillum’s loss to Ron DeSantis in the governor’s race. Scott is ahead of Nelson by just 0.15 percent, well below the 0.25 percent margin that triggers a hand recount at the end of a machine recount. The race for agriculture commissioner has a margin of just 0.06 percent.
While county workers ran scanning machines for days in closed-off rooms during the machine recount that began last Saturday, the hand recount involves a more sprawling process. Twenty counting teams with two county workers each sat in front of empty bins awaiting overvotes and undervotes to be examined. Observers from the Scott and Nelson campaigns, and the state Republican and Democratic parties, stood around them.
As 8 p.m. approached, crews were getting ready for work in a training room at the Elections Department in Doral.
“I know standing isn’t the easiest thing,” Miami-Dade assistant attorney Michael Valdes said during an orientation speech. He said there was some extra room near the back of the room, where the media and members of the public were cordoned off in an observation area.
Valdes said Elections would provide a limited number of chairs that the various camps could share. “Hopefully you can sort out who among your representatives need those seats the most. This room can only hold so much.”
The hundreds of people involved in the screening process were instructed to only separate pristine undervotes (ballots with absolutely nothing marked in the Senate contest) and textbook overvotes (where both candidates’ ovals are completely filled in). Any other ballots should be sent to the three-member canvassing board to decide if the vote should be counted for one candidate or another. The canvassing board consists of two Circuit Court judges and Christina White, the county’s elections supervisor.
Lawyers for the campaigns and parties were stationed at the canvassing board table to make their case for accepting or rejecting ballots that may help or hurt their candidates. Observers at the counting teams were told to submit their objections in writing.
Hand recounting of ballots began about an hour later, at 9 p.m. Workers distributed ballots to each counting team, with handlers wearing rubber gloves. One counter held up a ballot with his or her verdict, and undervote was by far the top choice in the first wave of ballots viewed from the observation area.
Candidates trailing need large number of ballots to make their way to the canvassing board, then be counted as new votes. The scanning machines don’t attempt to tally undervotes or overvotes, so they’re potential sources of new votes in the hand-recount process.
Valdes said the county screened the Miami-Dade workers to make sure there weren’t two Republicans or two Democrats on the same counting team. Each was issued pens with red ink, with dark-ink pens banned since they could be used to fill in ballots.
“If anyone is caught with a blue or black pen anywhere in this room,” Valdes told the crowd of more than 100 people, “they may be asked to leave.”
As the counting continued late into the night, the canvassing board paused several times to shush the crowd and ask for silence to maintain the “integrity” of the process. The ballot checkers seemed to move faster than the ballots were being sorted and brought out.
Although officials had said earlier the counting would continue through the night, shortly after 1 a.m. Friday the canvassing board said it was going to stop for the night and resume at 8 am. All volunteer observers and staffers who were on counting teams were dismissed. The canvassing board finished the last of the early-voting ballots just before 1:30 a.m. and left.
Staff writer Carli Teproff contributed to this report. This post was updated to correct the vote gap in the Senate contest.