State Politics

New lawsuits may extend recount deadline as Broward finally begins process

Deadline for finishing recount may be extended to Nov. 20 as Broward County

Election workers continue to count votes during the midterm election recount on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, at the Broward Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill, Florida.
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Election workers continue to count votes during the midterm election recount on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, at the Broward Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill, Florida.

Florida’s recount of the midterm elections continued to unfold on Tuesday with new plot twists and a nail-biter narrative, as Broward County’s embattled elections supervisor finally began recounting ballots and candidates filed new lawsuits challenging state laws that govern the process.

Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes, who announced that she likely would not seek re-election when her term expires in 2020, said her office began recounting more than 700,000 votes shortly before noon while workers also sorted ballots for the three relevant statewide races: U.S. Senator, Florida governor and commissioner of agriculture.

Though Broward started its recount three days after Miami-Dade began preparing to re-tally more than 800,000 ballots, Snipes said she was confident that her office will finish by Thursday’s 3 p.m. deadline to deliver results from the machine recounts to the state. That’s because Broward has fewer votes to count than its neighbor county to the south, and uses faster high-speed counting machines.

“There hasn’t been a deadline that we’ve missed,” Snipes said.

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Broward election planning director Joseph D’Alessandro, right, works on recounting votes from the midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, at the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office in Lauderhill, Florida. Christian Colon

Miami-Dade recounted the last of more than 800,000 ballots Tuesday evening to applause from the skeleton crew of county workers there for the end, wrapping up a 74-hour scramble to tally for the second time the results from the three races.

Florida’s most populous county finished its machine recount at 8:12 p.m., well ahead of the deadline.

“We’re doing the preparations” for a hand recount, Elections spokesman Roberto Rodriguez said, “but we can’t do anything until the state calls it.”

Meanwhile, problems developed Tuesday night in Palm Beach County. Susan Bucher, the elections supervisor for Palm Beach County, said the county’s aging voting machines had overheated and were spitting out incorrect totals, affecting about 175,000 early vote ballots, according to news reports. The votes, which had taken more than a day to count, will have to be recounted. Bucher told reporters the county flew in technicians to repair the machines.

While Florida’s 67 counties races to recount more than 8 million ballots statewide, candidates stepped up their fights in the courts. Sen. Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent trailing Gov. Rick Scott by a razor-thin margin, sued in federal court to bar state officials from tossing out ballots where selections are marked in different ways, so long as the voter’s intention is clear.

Nelson held a press conference on Tuesday in Washington, joined by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a fellow Democrat from New York.

Schumer sounded a note of guarded confidence as he gave Nelson “much greater than half chance” of winning reelection if the recount is conducted “fair and square,” though he did not offer evidence that Nelson would be able to make up a larger deficit than any other statewide recount in recent U.S. history.

Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Schumer and Nelson declined to take questions about the new lawsuit because “legal proceedings are ongoing.” Nelson’s campaign has also sued the Florida Department of State in an effort to count mail-in ballots that were postmarked before Election Day but not delivered before the polls closed on Nov. 6.

The Democrats called on Scott, a Republican, to remove himself from the recount process after the governor asked state police to investigate unsubstantiated allegations of election fraud. After the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it was not investigating Scott’s allegations, Attorney General Pam Bondi publicly called on the agency to investigate the governor’s claims of voter fraud in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

On Tuesday, the FDLE commissioner said he was “deeply troubled” that Bondi thought he would not pursue investigations into potential election fraud.

In a letter Monday to Bondi, Commissioner Rick Swearingen wrote that his office was working with the secretary of state and local, state and federal agencies to vet complaints and that a “preliminary inquiry” had already been initiated before Bondi ripped him for failing to pursue undefined allegations of election fraud, the News Service of Florida reported.

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Election workers recount ballots cast during the Florida midterm elections. Broward elections officials began a recount on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, at the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office in Lauderhill, Florida. Christian Colon

Scott, who has declared himself the winner of the race, also has intimated election fraud in a lawsuit asking a Broward judge to seize and impound vote tabulation machines in heavily Democratic Broward when those machines were not in use for the recount.

The governor’s lawsuit led to a compromise, with lawyers representing Scott’s and Nelson’s campaigns agreeing to post three additional sheriff’s deputies to monitor the recount in Broward.

“Sadly, it has become clear that my opponent isn’t interested in making sure that every lawful vote is counted,” Nelson said. “Instead, he’s been using his power as governor to try to undermine the voting process.”

Said Schumer of Scott: “He’s attempted to direct state resources to stop vote counting in locations that he knows that favors Democrats.”

Schumer said a recount should continue beyond Thursday’s deadline if county-level elected officials do not finish counting votes.

A Florida judge ruling in a different lawsuit filed by a Palm Beach County candidate had agreed that ballot counters should have more time. But that judge’s decision appeared to become moot late Tuesday after the case was moved to federal court.

Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers had said in a conference call Tuesday afternoon that she intended to issue an order extending the deadline for recounts in Palm Beach County to Nov. 20. But before Gievers wrote and filed the order, the case was moved to the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee.

Gievers’ order had stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Democrat Jim Bonfiglio, who is running against Republican Mike Caruso for state House District 89 in Palm Beach. Bonfiglio is losing to Caruso by 37 votes.

A deadline extension likely would have allowed Palm Beach Elections Supervisor Bucher to finish the recount. Bucher said this week that her office would not be able to meet the Thursday deadline to finish recounting for all three statewide races and that the county would only complete the tally for the U.S. Senate race.

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Election workers recount votes from the midterm election on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, at the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office in Lauderhill, Florida. Christian Colon

Of the three statewide races subject to recount, unofficial election results show Scott leading Nelson by 0.14 percentage points or 12,562 votes. In the race for agriculture commissioner, Democrat Nikki Fried is up 5,326 votes on Republican Matt 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.

Nelson’s 12,000-plus vote deficit is a larger margin than any other statewide race in recent history where a recount changed the initial result.

Despite the contentious process, Schumer vowed there would be no flashback to the last big recount in Florida, when former President George W. Bush bested former Vice President Al Gore.

“We will not have a rerun of 2000 when bullying and intimidation ruled and created a rush to judgment that, to this day, many Americans believe that election was unjustly and unfairly decided,” he said. “That cannot happen again.”

Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks, Alex Harris and Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.