Palm Beach County finishes manual recount of votes cast in U.S. Senate race

Palm Beach County Recounts

Palm Beach County recounts as machines overheated at the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections office.
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Palm Beach County recounts as machines overheated at the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections office.

A day after missing the state deadline to complete a machine recount of votes cast in the races for U.S. Senate, governor and commissioner of agriculture, Palm Beach County finished a hand recount of Senate votes in a race that is still too close to call.

At around 4 p.m. Friday, election workers finished reviewing approximately 6,000 ballots with overvotes and undervotes — ballots in which the voter’s intent wasn’t immediately clear because he or she marked two candidates in a race or left a race blank. The county’s canvassing board then examined dozens of ballots still in dispute, completing the Senate recount process around 5 p.m.

“After a very long 10 or maybe 12 days we have completed the determination in the U.S. Senate race,” Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said on Friday evening, calling the recount process “long and arduous.”

The manual recount — the first statewide hand recount in Florida’s history — was ordered Thursday evening by Secretary of State Ken Detzner because the vote totals in the race between Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson were within a quarter of a percentage point. Following a statewide machine recount, the race for governor was outside the margins that trigger a hand recount.

Detzner also ordered a manual recount in the agriculture commissioner race between Republican Matt Caldwell and Democrat Nicole “Nikki” Fried, but because Palm Beach had failed to complete a machine recount of the ballots cast in that race, election workers were unable to immediately start a hand recount. Election workers rely on machine counts to find ballots in need of closer scrutiny.

Palm Beach didn’t actually finish a machine recount of any of the three statewide races by the 3 p.m. Thursday deadline, or a machine recount of a Florida House race that appeared to have been decided by just 37 votes. Faced with decade-old ballot-counting machines only capable of recounting one race at a time, Palm Beach had to submit its results from Saturday in lieu of machine recount results.

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

Election workers continued the machine recount of ballots cast in the Senate race after the deadline and had completed that step in time to begin the hand recount around noon Friday.

Next, Palm Beach will begin to recount votes cast in the race for Florida House District 89. The county had initially planned to prioritize recounts by their position on the ballot — moving from U.S. Senate, to governor, then agriculture commissioner — before turning to the state House race.

But Democratic candidate Jim Bonfiglio, who is trailing Republican Mike Caruso by just 37 votes in the Florida House race, filed suit seeking to extend the recount deadline. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker denied Bonfiglio’s request for an extension but ruled that Palm Beach’s canvassing board could change the order of the recounts.

The canvassing board voted late Friday afternoon to begin a recount of House District 89 votes at 8 a.m. Saturday and then recount ballots cast in the races for agriculture commissioner and governor. The county will only conduct a machine recount for the governor’s race because the margin isn’t slim enough to trigger a hand recount.

Election workers examine ballots during a hand recount of votes cast in the U.S. Senate race in Palm Beach County on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. Volunteer observers watch the process. Kyra Gurney kgurney@miamiherald.com

Bonfiglio said he was pleased with the canvassing board’s decision and that he was “cautiously optimistic” he would end up winning the race. “I’m very happy because that means every legally cast ballot in District 89 will be counted, and that’s the most important thing,” he said. “All of my votes are back there, they just need to be counted.”

Bucher said on Friday evening that she thinks Palm Beach will be able to complete the Florida House recount by noon on Sunday, which is the final deadline to submit vote tallies to the state. Roughly 80,000 ballots were cast in the House race, according to Bonfiglio, compared to nearly 600,000 ballots in the statewide races.

In a separate case, the Nelson campaign sued Detzner and Palm Beach County on Thursday to demand a hand count of all ballots. The lawsuit argues that because Palm Beach’s ballot-counting machines have suffered mechanical problems, including overheating on Tuesday night and giving incorrect vote totals, “A machine recount is no longer a viable or reliable alternative for protecting Palm Beach County’s voters from suffering irreparable injury or for safeguarding the public interest.” The suit was still pending late Friday afternoon.

Bucher said that Palm Beach County would not be able to finish recounting votes for the agriculture commissioner and governor races in time to meet the final state deadline. Final vote tallies from Florida’s 67 counties are due Nov. 18 and will be certified by the state on Nov. 20. If Palm Beach doesn’t make that deadline, the county’s previously submitted results will automatically be considered official. Election workers will continue to count ballots until the recounts for all races are complete, Bucher said.

“We are still obligated to complete each one of the recounts by Florida statute irregardless of the deadlines,” she said.

At a federal court hearing on Thursday, Bucher said that finishing the full recount could “optimistically” take until Dec. 15 or possibly until “the later part of December, very close to Christmas.”