Florida Recount Watch: Tensions Rise As Counting Begins
After some early bumps, more than half of Florida's 67 counties began recounting votes Sunday in the razor-thin Senate and gubernatorial races, bringing back memories of the 2000 presidential fiasco.
In Democratic-leaning Broward County, the scheduled start of the recount was delayed Sunday because of a problem with one of the tabulation machines. The Republican Party attacked Broward's supervisor of elections, Brenda Snipes, of "incompetence and gross mismanagement" following the delay, which was resolved within two hours.
The county, the state's second-most populous, is emerging as the epicenter of controversy in the recount. Broward officials said they mistakenly counted 22 absentee ballots that had been rejected, mostly because the signature on the return envelope did not match the one on file. It is a problem that appears impossible to fix because the ballots were mixed in with 205 legal ballots. Snipes said it would be unfair to throw out all the ballots.
The recount in most other major population centers, including Miami-Dade and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in the Tampa Bay area, was ongoing without incident on Sunday. Smaller counties are expected to begin their reviews Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. All counties face a Thursday afternoon deadline to complete the recount.
In Hillsborough, a handful of lawyers and observers peered through the glass windows at the Supervisor of Elections headquarters Sunday morning to keep tabs on the recount. Along with the state's top elected offices, Hillsborough is recounting a state senate seat where Democrat Janet Cruz holds a slight lead over incumbent Republican Dana Young.
Elections supervisor Craig Latimer started the process of having machines tabulate 526,000 ballots for the recounts. But drawing on his experience, he doesn't expect the outcomes to differ.
"I do not expect to see significant change," he said. " When you get to the overvotes, especially, you may have one where the person bubbled something in, and they crossed a line through it and put, no, don't want this one, want this one, and the machine sees that as an overvote. But when the eyes look at it, then that's going to change. You know, so the voter intent was that it was obvious for that person. So it can go up, or down."
Latimer expects to be done by the Thursday deadline.
"We're going to evaluate each day where we are, we may add longer shifs, we may add more machines, so we'll evaluate as we go," he said. "
Latimer has had experience at this, having done a recount for a 2016 school board race.
The statewide recounts are an unprecedented step in Florida, a state that's notorious for election results decided by the thinnest of margins. State officials said they weren't aware of any other time either a race for governor or U.S. Senate in Florida required a recount, let alone both in the same election.
Unofficial results show that Republican former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis led Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by 0.41 percentage points in the election for governor. In the Senate race, Republican Gov. Rick Scott's lead over Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson is 0.14 percentage points.
State law requires a machine recount in races where the margin is less than 0.5 percentage points. Once completed, if the differences in any of the races are 0.25 percentage points or below, a hand recount will be ordered.
As the recount unfolded, Republicans urged their Democratic opponents to give up and allow the state to move on. Scott said Sunday that Nelson wants fraudulent ballots and those cast by noncitizens to count, pointing to a Nelson lawyer objecting to Palm Beach County's rejection of one provisional ballot because it was cast by a noncitizen.
"He is trying to commit fraud to win this election," Scott told Fox News. "Bill Nelson's a sore loser. He's been in politics way too long."
Gillum and Nelson have argued each vote should be counted and the process allowed to take its course. Both the state elections division, which Scott runs, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have said they have found no evidence of voter fraud.
That didn't stop protests outside Snipes' office, where a crowd of mostly Republicans gathered Sunday, holding signs, listening to country music and occasionally chanting "lock her up," referring to Snipes.
A massive Trump 2020 flag flew over the parking lot and many members of a Bikers For Trump group wore matching shirts and carried flags, mingling among a crowd that included a protester wearing a Hillary Clinton mask.
Registered independent Russell Liddick, a 38-year-old retail worker from Pompano Beach carried a sign reading, "I'm not here for Trump! I'm here for fair elections! Fire Snipes!" He said the office's problems "don't make me feel very much like my vote counted."
Florida is also conducting a recount in a third statewide race. Democrat Nikki Fried had a 0.07 percentage point lead over Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell in the race for agriculture commissioner, one of Florida's three Cabinet seats.
From a distant glance, the recounts might dredge up memories of the 2000 presidential recount, when it took more than five weeks for Florida to declare George W. Bush the victor over Vice President Al Gore by 537 votes, thus giving Bush the presidency.
But much has changed since then. In 2000, each county had its own voting system. Many used punch cards — voters poked out chads, leaving tiny holes in their ballots representing their candidates. Some voters, however, didn't fully punch out the presidential chad or gave it just a little push. Those hanging and dimpled chads had to be examined by the canvassing boards, a lengthy, tiresome and often subjective process that became fodder for late-night comedians.
Now the state requires that all Florida counties use ballots where voters use a pen to mark their candidate's name, much like a student does when taking a multiple-choice test. It also now clearly mandates how the recount will proceed.
Those ballots are now being run through scanning machines in each county for a second time under the watchful eye of representatives of both parties and the campaigns. Any ballot that cannot be read for any of the recounted races will be put aside.
If a race's statewide margin falls below 0.25 percentage points after the machine count, the state will order a manual recount in each county. At that point, only the rejected ballots for that race will be examined by counting teams to determine if the voters' intentions were obvious. For example, some voters circle the candidate's name instead of filling in the ballot properly and some cross out their vote and then mark another candidate.
If either side objects to a counting team's decision or the team can't make one, the ballot will be forwarded to the county's canvassing board, with the three members voting on the final decision. The members are usually the county supervisor of elections, a judge and the chair of the county commissioners.