How does an election recount work?
Machine recounts are underway across Florida, but it’s already clear the state’s supervisors of elections are hurtling toward daunting manual recounts under extreme time constraints later this week.
At least two critical statewide races — for U.S. Senate and agriculture commissioner — appear destined to hinge on elections officials examining tens of thousands of ballots, by hand, in little more than 48 hours.
The Herald/Times confirmed at least 33,000 votes to be manually recounted in the U.S. Senate race between Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Bill Nelson and 113,600 in the race between Republican Matt Caldwell and Democrat Nicole “Nikki” Fried for commissioner of agriculture.
The total number is likely higher though, based on preliminary data compiled by the Herald/Times. Comparing the number of votes in each race with the number of total ballots cast, there could be more than 125,000 overvotes and undervotes in the Senate race and more than 225,000 in the commissioner of agriculture race.
Official results need to be turned in by noon Sunday.
An overvote occurs when a voter marks two candidates in a race. An undervote happens when a voter leaves a race blank. Hand recounts of these ballots ensures there are no machine errors in reading votes.
A manual recount would be triggered Thursday afternoon if the number of overvotes and undervotes is greater than the number of votes separating the two leading candidates — meaning if those votes have the potential to decide the election. That is all but a certainty in two races based on the Herald/Times review of county-by-county data.
Scott is leading Nelson by 12,562 votes, or 0.15 percent, based on early unofficial results. Fried is up 5,326 votes on Caldwell, or 0.07 percent. The race for governor is less likely to meet the threshold for a manual recount — Republican Ron DeSantis is up 0.41 percent, or 33,684 votes, on Democrat Andrew Gillum.
The tight deadline to turn around the final recount could be a source of woe for some counties.
Palm Beach is already struggling to meet the Thursday afternoon deadline for the machine recount, calling it “impossible,” the Palm Beach Post reported.
Broward, which had yet to start its machine recount of more than 700,000 ballots Monday, could face having to recount as many as 30,000 Senate votes and 22,000 commissioner of agriculture votes by hand between Thursday afternoon and Sunday morning.
This is the first real test of Florida’s election recount procedures, established after Bush v. Gore, said Michael T. Morley, an assistant professor of law at Florida State University.
After the 2000 election, the U.S. Supreme Court faulted Florida for a lack of rules dictating what ballots should be accepted or rejected. Following that debacle, the Secretary of State’s Office created new criteria designed to fill in the gray area when considering ballots, Morley said. The standards depict sample ballots that should be accepted or rejected, laying out uniform interpretations for half-circles, squiggles and check-marks.
For counties that don’t meet the Sunday deadline, previously submitted results will automatically be considered official, according to statute.
But Morley is skeptical this would put an end to the recount.
“Almost certainly that would trigger another lawsuit,” he said.
The task of sorting through ballots will fall to counting teams, designated by county canvassing boards. The teams will include at least two people, who should represent different political affiliations, and will be closely watched by lawyers for each candidate. If a counting team cannot agree on a voter’s intention, or if the lawyers object to the team’s decision, the ballot in question will go before the full canvassing board.
“It’s going to require that each canvassing commission in each county appoint a great number of people to serve on the counting teams,” said Florida elections lawyer Thomas Shults, who said he worked for Republicans in the 2000 recount.
Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman for the Division of Elections, said she expects supervisors of elections to do the recounts one race at a time.
Hillsborough County — which could have 4,350 votes to process in the Senate election, more than 15,000 in the agriculture commissioner race and more in a third state legislative contest — plans to have 20 counting teams, said spokeswoman Gerri Kramer.
The canvassing board will designate elections staff to serve in the groups, she said, and the plan is to have them look at multiple races under recount on a ballot at once.
Most of the questionable ballots are undervotes, and Hillsborough believes it could begin the manual recounts Friday morning and finish by Sunday.
“A lot of that will be pretty obvious [if] there’s just not a vote cast in that race,” Kramer said.
Across Tampa Bay, in Pinellas County, elections officials have readied eight counting teams — with eight Republicans, six Democrats and two voters with no party affiliation, said spokesman Dustin Chase. Pinellas also plans to begin manual recounts Friday morning and could have about 3,300 votes to analyze for Senate and 11,000 for agriculture commissioner.
“We are just trying to get through the machine recount at this point,” Chase said Monday.
Miami-Dade Elections spokesperson Suzy Trutie said if a manual recount is ordered, she’s confident the county will meet the deadline. The canvassing board would have to decide the procedures it wants to use to review all the votes.
Miami-Dade would have about 10,000 votes to review in the Senate race and 31,000 in the agriculture race.
Until then, officials are working on getting through the machine recount, Trutie said. By Monday afternoon, the county was halfway done.
Morley said he thinks most counties will finish in time, organizing as many teams as needed to get the work done.
“I think the main issue is just as long as the process is done in an open and fair manner, that the public will be able to have confidence in the outcome of the election,” he said.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Steve Contorno contributed to this report.