Broward County will use its first unofficial election results – not the returns of its machine recount – as a baseline figure in the certified tally it submits to Tallahassee on Sunday.
The canvassing board unanimously passed a motion Saturday night affirming the belief of Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes that the county’s first vote tally of 714,859 was an accurate reflection of votes cast in the county, and that using the slightly smaller machine recount total would essentially disenfranchise 2,040 voters whose ballots weren’t counted in that second filing.
Florida statute says that every canvassing board must certify that the numbers it reports to the state reflect the total number of votes cast in the election and that the final results include all valid votes cast in the election.
The canvassing board based its decisions on information provided by Snipes and her staff that show the first unofficial results were accurate, and that the second results were flawed. A spokesperson for the Secretary of State, who accepts the results, said state law requires the county canvassing board “to compare the number of persons voted with the number of ballots counted and that the certification of the election includes all valid votes.”
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But first, members of the board – mainly Circuit Court judges Deborah Carpenter-Toye and Betsy Benson – methodically and assertively questioned Snipes and her right-hand man about the possibility of additional votes popping up Sunday and throwing off the board’s schedule.
Snipes’ office has come under intense scrutiny in the days after the election. A group of conservative protesters had been consistently camped outside her Lauderhill office every day since they saw their candidates’ leads shrink as Broward belatedly reported its vote totals. She was the subject of a lawsuit by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a candidate for U.S. Senate, for her handling of the ballots and her apparent lack of transparency.
“Are you certain, not are you satisfied, but are you certain that there are no other ballots that need to be looked at to determine your final official count?” Carpenter-Toye said to Broward Director of Election Planning and Development Joseph D’Alessandro.
“I am certain,” he said.
He would later return to his work area to double check his numbers, and the board recessed for the evening so as not to rush the process.
In the county’s final report, due to the state’s Division of Elections at 12 p.m. Sunday, that baseline of nearly 715,000 ballots will be added to the numbers from two statewide manual recounts conducted Friday and Saturday, along with a batch of 1,856 other ballots either not counted in the first unofficial results or not canvassed by the board until after the initial deadline.
Also included in the final count will be the nearly 300 overseas or military ballots received by the board after the Thursday deadline for the unofficial results and 27 vote-by-mail ballots approved by the board following a court-imposed extension for voters to cure provisional and mail-in ballots with mismatched signatures by 5 p.m. Saturday.
A batch of 205 provisional ballots that came under intense scrutiny because they included about 20 ballots deemed invalid by the board for signature matching issues and other discrepancies will be included in Broward’s final results to the state. The reasoning behind their inclusion is that nullifying the entire bundle would unfairly disenfranchise some 180 voters whose ballots were tainted due to a clerical error.
Broward’s canvassing board will reconvene at 8 a.m. Sunday when D’Alessandro presents the board with an official tally of the county’s ballots.
The canvassing board will operate as if its deadline is 10 a.m., not noon, after an operating error over the weekend caused D’Alessandro to miss a state-imposed machine recount deadline by a couple of minutes.
“I want to give you ample time for you to upload,” Carpenter-Toye said. “We’re going to pretend like the deadline is 10, really it’s 12.”
The canvassing board finished reviewing over-and-under votes in the manual recount for the agriculture commissioner’s race around 4 p.m. on Saturday. Nine volunteers then quickly hand counted the only municipal race being recounted in Broward County, a non-partisan city commission seat in West Park.
The results of the agriculture commissioner recount were not released Saturday. That recount was completed by about 4:30 p.m. and disputed ballots were reviewed before 5 p.m.
The canvassing board then moved on to reviewing absentee ballots that were rejected for signature match issues. A court order extended the deadline to 5 p.m. Saturday for voters to fix their ballots by submitting a cure affidavit.
The board validated 27 of the 30 previously rejected absentee ballots it received by the cutoff. Those determinations were largely based on the proof of current identification, such as a photocopy of a driver’s license.
There were no additional cure affidavits presented to the board Saturday evening. There were also no outstanding military or overseas ballots that the board needed to review. The deadline for the supervisor’s office to receive those ballots was Friday, or 10 days after the election.
“Everything that we have has been presented,” said Mary Hall, the director of voter services.
Broward County’s second day of manual recounting for the agriculture commissioner race was studded with requests for new recounts from both parties, and questions from attorneys about what to do about the 2,040 votes missing from the county’s machine recount tally.
First, the volunteer counting process came to a halt just over an hour after it began Saturday morning, when lawyers from both political parties pointed out volunteers were counting incorrect ballots.
On Friday, hundreds of volunteers sorted through about 32,000 undervotes and overvotes in the U.S. Senate race between Bill Nelson and Rick Scott. Saturday, volunteers began sorting through about 22,000 undervotes and overvotes for the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture race between Nikki Fried and Matt Caldwell.
Lawyers discovered that several of the 10,000 overlapping ballots, which clearly marked a vote for the agriculture race but were unclear in the Senate vote, appeared in Saturday’s piles.
“It appears there may have been some envelopes from yesterday mixed in,” Carpenter-Toye said.
Republican lawyer Joe Goldstein asked for a do-over to Saturday’s manual recount so the offending ballots — he said he saw around 10 envelopes’ worth — were fully sorted out.
“The recount should cease until that is corrected,” he said.
But the canvassing board decided to keep counting and have volunteers flag any incorrect ballots to be removed from the day’s count. Carpenter-Toye said the board hadn’t received any incorrect ballots up to that point Saturday morning.
Larry Davis, a lawyer for Fried’s campaign, asked for an explanation of what happened to the 2,040 votes Broward did not tally in the machine recount that was submitted to the state two minutes late. At the time, Broward announced it had also mishandled votes and “co-mingled” ballots.
“If they don’t find these 2,000 ballots there’s going to be 2,000 Broward citizens — that voted for Republicans and Democrats — that aren’t going to have their vote counted. They’re going to be disenfranchised,” Davis said. “We have 24 hours to get this thing straight from now, basically.”
Snipes told the board Saturday that she believed human error in the sorting of ballots contributed to the discrepancy between the first count and the machine recount. That, she said, was the “most accurate” explanation of what happened.
“The votes are in the building,” she said. “I know that sounds trite, it sounds foolish.”
She said some staffers tasked with sorting ballots ahead of the machine recount were “not as well trained as some others” and that led to some ballots being “probably mixed in.”
“I’m not blaming anyone,” she said.
Republican lawyer Joseph Goldstein cautioned Snipes not to double count any votes in fixing the errors with the machine recount.
“We certainly want all valid ballots to be counted, but we don’t want valid votes to be counted twice,” he said.
The manual recount results are due to the state Sunday at noon. That count will include overseas and military votes submitted since election day, the results of the manual recount, ballots from anyone who fixed a signature mismatch by the Saturday deadline extended by a federal judge as well as a “base” count of votes.
Snipes told the board the initial count from Nov. 10 was “absolutely” a correct tabulation of the votes cast in the county. Greg Mendenhall, a contractor employed by the county for its elections, could not say if the results were precisely correct, but he said “there won’t be a significant difference.”
The county attorney, Andrew Meyers, said he reached out to the state for guidance on which count would be proper to include.
The board also ordered Snipes and her office to preserve all records — digital or otherwise — related to ballots and elections after it was revealed the staff did not retain images of any ballots except legitimate write-ins.
Canvassing board member Judge Betsy Benson said she was concerned about the ramification of failing to complete the task.
“We want to make sure as many valid votes as possible count as opposed to none of them,” she said. “We’re not in a hurry. We’re only in a hurry because the state of Florida wants us to be in a hurry. We could stay here… as long as we need to, but we do have a deadline.”
Volunteers finished the manual recount of the agriculture commissioner race around 9:30 a.m., leaving about a dozen boxes of ballots for the canvassing board to certify before the day’s work was completed. Just a handful remained by 3 p.m., and the board was expected to complete its review by late Saturday afternoon or early evening.
Canvassing board attorney Rene Harrod also announced the official tally of Friday’s manual recount of the U.S. Senate race. Of the more than 32,000 ballots counted, only 410 were valid votes for Nelson and 136 were votes for Scott, puncturing the claims that an unusually high undervote count in Broward was the result of a machine error.
At the end of a long night Saturday, and after nearly two weeks of tense patience, the attorneys for the Democrats and Republicans represented in the recounts gathered to take a group photo during a canvassing board recess.
“Say Sen. Scott!” one Republican lawyer blurted. “Commissioner Fried!” a Democratic attorney responded.
“Everyone gets something!” a third concluded.