How does an election recount work?
Florida, the land of the “hanging chad,” “butterfly ballot” and “Brooks Brothers Riot,” may just outdo itself.
The state that dragged the 2000 presidential election to a crawl and nearly broke the country’s storied democratic process 18 years ago is once again headed toward the uncertainty of a statewide recount. Except this time, instead of one nationally important race, at least three crucial contests must be tallied again in the state’s 67 counties.
The looming recounts have already led to unfounded charges of elections theft, a reneged concession speech — and an audacious campaign request by the outgoing governor for a public corruption investigation into the counting of ballots that could determine whether he wins his own campaign for U.S. Senate. More than 48 hours after the country concluded the midterm elections, it’s still unknown who will be Florida’s next U.S. senator, governor and agriculture commissioner, or how long it will be before those pronouncements can be made.
“I think it is fair to say right now that the results of the 2018 Senate election are unknown,” said Marc Elias, the lead attorney on U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s recount team.“
The state’s elections unexpectedly devolved into calamity Thursday thanks largely to thousands of votes belatedly trickling out of — where else? — heavily Democratic South Florida. Only Wednesday, it appeared that Republicans had pulled off a sweep in the country’s largest swing state, snaring the governor’s mansion, all three Cabinet positions and Nelson’s Senate seat. Andrew Gillum, the Democrat running for governor, was so certain he’d lost that he conceded late Tuesday and called Ron DeSantis to congratulate him on his win.
But as vote counts updated Wednesday overnight — with elections employees running ballots through voting machines into the early morning— the margins shrank. Gov. Rick Scott, who on Tuesday night declared victory over Nelson, was suddenly a mere 15,000 votes ahead and heading for a hand recount. Gillum, suddenly down only 37,000 votes, un-conceded, if there is such a thing.
Nikki Fried, a Democratic candidate running for agricultural commissioner, actually leapfrogged over Republican Matt Caldwell to take the lead — leading Caldwell’s campaign to howl about “potential corruption.” Scott then filed a lawsuit against Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes and held a press conference to announce that he’d ordered a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into the beleaguered politician.
“We’ve all seen the incompetence and irregularities of vote tabulations in Palm Beach and Broward County for years. Well, here we go again,” Scott said from a podium at the governor’s mansion. “I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the great people of Florida.”
Democrats, meanwhile, voiced uncertainty about the prospects of Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Scott appointee, overseeing a complicated and legally fraught process involving the fate of his boss. Come noon Saturday, Detzner will need to order a machine recount for any race within a half of one percent, such as the governor’s race, and a hand recount for a contest within a quarter of one percent, such as the Senate and agriculture commissioner races.
In large counties, like Miami-Dade, the process could take days.
“I want to make sure that ... there are objective observers who participate in the entire recount, every single vote, to make sure there are no questions about how it’s conducted,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch said during a visit to Broward’s elections headquarters.
The backsliding conclusion to Florida’s election season created a bizarre sense of deja vu for attorneys who once again found themselves jumping into South Florida to bird-dog vote tabulations. Three elections attorneys who represented George W. Bush and Al Gore during the 2000 Florida recount have been hired again by the campaigns watching the 11th hour vote-counting, including William Scherer, who represented Bush in 2000.
In that election, Bush won by a mere 537 votes after the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a statewide recount. Confusing “butterfly ballots” in Palm Beach County led Democrats to vote for conservative Pat Buchanan, and “hanging chads” became a national punchline. In Miami-Dade, a near-riot led by political operative Roger Stone at the canvassing board led to the halting of ballot counting. Broward, too, was under heavy scrutiny at the time.
“There could be opportunities for voter fraud,” Scherer, now retained to represent Rick Scott’s campaign in the recount, warned while watching Snipes’ employees feed ballots into voting machines. Asked to explain his suspicions, Scherer had a simple answer: “Because it’s in Broward.”
The state’s biggest Democratic bastion is indeed once again under heavy scrutiny. Attorneys crowded the county’s canvassing board in Snipes’ Lauderhill headquarters late into the evening, contesting decisions to accept and reject ballots. A teacher at a Miramar elementary school announced she’d found a box labeled “provisional ballots.” And at one point, Republican attorneys threatened to sue Snipes over the board’s acceptance of about 200 provisional ballots, so she put the ballots aside and said she’d try to “un-ring the bell.”
Snipes drew fire from Republicans around the state as she was unable to say how many outstanding ballots her department had yet to count. In a county where Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans, every batch of counted votes meant Democratic candidates inched closer to their Republican opponents. But the criticism was bipartisan. Elias, Nelson’s elections attorney, claimed that Snipes’ office likely had a machine calibration problem after more than 24,000 voters appeared to skip the U.S. Senate race despite its being the first question on the ballot.
“There’s no calibration issue,” said Snipes, who had no explanation for why her office was reporting two different turnout totals on its website. “Those machines are brand new.”
Snipes, who was appointed to her post in 2002 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush to replace the beleaguered Miriam Oliphant and has since been reelected several times, had no comment when told that Scott was suing and hoping to have her investigated. Both she and Palm Beach Elections Supervisor expected to finish their vote counts Friday.
Recounts rarely overturn elections. But the process is all-but guaranteed to last until Nov. 18, when state law requires that any recounted totals be completed and returned to the state. The bigger questions are whether the process will last longer, whether any more lawsuits will be filed, and when the state of Florida will find out who will be the next to occupy the governor’s mansion and Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat.
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporters Steve Bousquet and Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.