National Politics

Florida’s midterm elections enter the courts as campaigns battle over looming recounts

Republican protesters gather outside of Snipes’ office

Approximately 60 protesters gathered outside Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes' office, chanting 'lock her up,' and 'Brenda's got to go!' as the canvassing board was preparing to meet, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018.
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Approximately 60 protesters gathered outside Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes' office, chanting 'lock her up,' and 'Brenda's got to go!' as the canvassing board was preparing to meet, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018.

Tension over looming recounts in three statewide elections spilled into the courts and streets of South Florida Friday as candidates fighting for their political lives lobbed allegations of fraud and voter disenfranchisement.

Judges from Fort Lauderdale to Tallahassee weighed lawsuits that could influence the outcome of tight races for U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner. Thousands of ballots remained uncounted following an election that saw more than 8 million people vote. And protesters clashed in Broward County as the nation’s most embattled elections supervisor scrambled to transmit to the state by noon Saturday every vote cast.

“Bad things have gone on in Broward County,” President Donald Trump told the White House press corps. “Really bad things.”

Trump played the recount instigator all day Friday as Republican candidates watched the not-quite-final vote tallies trickle in to the state’s Division of Elections. By the evening, Gov. Rick Scott was ahead of Sen. Bill Nelson by 14,848 votes in the race for Nelson’s Senate seat, and former congressman Ron DeSantis was ahead of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by 36,002 in the race for governor.

All of Florida’s 67 elections supervisors must transmit unofficial results by noon Saturday to Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who will review the data and determine whether any races are in need of automatic recounts.

Regardless, the governor’s race appears headed for a mandatory machine recount, and the races for Senate and commissioner of agriculture will likely need recounts done by hand. With the nationally watched elections so close, every vote matters. And the campaigns are fighting over every ballot before the state’s 67 canvassing boards — appointed bodies that review local elections and pore over problematic ballots — and judges in state and federal court.

Attorneys for Scott, who accused elections supervisors in Broward and Palm Beach of voter fraud Thursday without presenting any evidence, were in courtrooms in both counties prosecuting lawsuits that could influence the election. In Broward, Scott forced elections supervisor Brenda Snipes to turn over data related to the number and type of ballots cast and the number of ballots yet to be counted by Friday evening. In Palm Beach, Scott won an order demanding that Supervisor Susan Bucher provide any ballots discarded by her staff to the county’s canvassing board for review, and that she turn over a list of voters who filed provisional ballots.

Matt Caldwell, the GOP nominee for commissioner of agriculture — a race in which Democrat Nikki Fried held a lead of four-hundredths of one percentage point — filed his own lawsuit in Broward Friday seeking to bar Snipes’ office from counting mail-in ballots submitted after the Nov. 6 election’s 7 p.m. deadline. He filed his complaint before Snipes reportedly announced Friday that there were still 2,100 more absentee ballots to process.

“This is at best incompetence, at worst intentional,” said Danielle Alvarez, a Caldwell campaign spokeswoman.

Snipes, who oversees voting in the state’s most heavily Democratic county, has been under fire from Republicans for days in no small part because she refused to explain how many uncounted ballots remained in her possession. Her office’s belated tallying of early and mail-in ballots has been largely responsible for the late-breaking gains made by Nelson, Gillum and Fried, spawning conspiracy theories and unfounded allegations of ballot-stuffing.

Accusations — including a dubious claim by Trump that Snipes had intended to steal his Florida win in 2016 — fed a protest that ran for hours outside Snipes’ Lauderhill headquarters as thousands more ballots were tallied. Snipes’ office was so jarred they brought in Lauderhill police to search the public with metal detector wands before allowing them to watch the county’s canvassing board pore over problematic ballots.

“We want her in handcuffs for her criminal history. We want her whole staff in handcuffs,” said Janet Klomburg, a 56-year-old from Weston.

Snipes’ office has been criticized for years over mishaps. She was sued by a group backing the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment when some ballots were missing the question, and a judge ruled this year that her office had prematurely destroyed ballots in the 2016 congressional primary between U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Tim Canova. In that same election, a vendor for her office broke the law by accidentally releasing vote totals while people were still voting on election night.

But so far, no one crying foul has produced any evidence that Snipes or anyone in her office is fabricating ballots in these midterms. On the contrary, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Scott never made an official request to investigate voter fraud, and added it had no reports of any illegal activity. Neither had the state’s Division of Elections, which weeks ago sent two observers to Broward to watch the elections process at Scott’s request.

Democrats, on the other hand, alleged voter disenfranchisement. Attorneys for Nelson conferenced with a federal judge in Tallahassee Friday afternoon hoping to preserve thousands of absentee and provisional ballots rejected due to discrepancies in signatures. The case remains alive, but the judge declined to extend the noon Saturday deadline for supervisors to submit their unofficial results to the state.

“This is a feature, not a flaw, of our Democratic system,” Nelson attorney Marc Elias said of the state’s ballot-counting and looming recount process. Elias, on a conference call with reporters, ripped Scott for asking a state agency to investigate the counting of ballots in a race in which he’s running. “This is not a third-world dictatorship. We don’t let people seize ballots when they think they’re losing.”

It’s not yet clear what will happen Saturday when Detzner — a Scott appointee — reviews the state’s voting results. But elections supervisors are already bracing for three arduous recounts. Miami-Dade Supervisor Christina White said she’s planning 24-hour shifts for a machine recount of the 800,000 ballots cast in Florida’s most populous county.

More than 1 out of every 10 ballots cast in Florida’s 2018 election came from Miami-Dade. The county has ordered high-speed ballot-counting machines from Omaha to add to the eight the county already owns. They’re expected to arrive Monday, and White said the machines are crucial for Miami-Dade meeting the Thursday afternoon deadline to complete the recount and having its new results tallied by the state.

“There is literally not enough time to scan 813,000 ballots in the five days we have” if Miami-Dade must rely on its existing ballot-counting equipment, White said. “Mathematically, it’s impossible.”

Tampa Bay Times reporter Steve Bousquet and Miami Herald reporters Sarah Blaskey, Samantha Gross, Douglas Hanks, Elizabeth Koh, Nicholas Nehamas and Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.

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