By KELLI KENNEDY and TERRY SPENCER, Associated Press
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Mishaps, protests and litigation dominated Florida’s first day of recounting the vote for pivotal races for governor and Senate, bringing back memories of the 2000 presidential fiasco.
Much of the drama on Sunday centered on Broward and Palm Beach counties, home to large concentrations of Democratic voters.
In Broward County, the recount was delayed for several hours Sunday morning because of a problem with one of the tabulation machines. That prompted the Republican Party to slam Broward’s supervisor of elections, Brenda Snipes, for “incompetence and gross mismanagement.”
Broward officials faced further headaches after they acknowledged the county mistakenly counted 22 absentee ballots that had been rejected. The problem seemed impossible to fix because the dismissed ballots were mixed in with 205 legal ballots and Snipes said it would be unfair to throw out all of those votes.
By the end of the day, Gov. Rick Scott, the Republican candidate for Senate, filed suit against Snipes in a circuit court. He sought a judge’s order that law enforcement agents impound and secure all voting machines, tallying devices and ballots “when not in use until such time as any recounts.” The lawsuit accused Snipes of repeatedly failing to account for the number of ballots left to be counted and failing to report results regularly as required by law.
Juan Penalosa, the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, accused Scott of “using his position to consolidate power by cutting at the very core of our democracy.”
Meanwhile, in Palm Beach County, the supervisor of elections said she doesn’t believe her department will be able to meet the state’s Thursday deadline to complete the recount, throwing into question what would happen to votes there.
The developments added up to a tumultuous day in America’s premier political battleground state. More than half of Florida’s 67 counties began a recount process that’s unprecedented even in a state notorious for settling elections by razor-thin margins. State officials said they weren’t aware of any other time a race for governor or U.S. Senate required a recount, let alone both in the same election.
The recount in other major population centers, including Miami-Dade and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in the Tampa Bay area, was ongoing without incident Sunday. Smaller counties are expected to begin their reviews in coming days.
Unofficial results showed 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, Scott’s lead over Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson was 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 let 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.”
Nelson’s campaign issued a statement Sunday saying their lawyer wasn’t authorized to object to the ballot’s rejection as “Non-citizens cannot vote in US elections.”
In Fort Lauderdale, Gillum appeared at a predominantly African-American church Sunday evening, telling an overflow crowd that voter disenfranchisement isn’t just about being blocked from the polling booth. He said it also includes absentee ballots not being counted and ballots where “the ‘w’ in their signature may look different today than the ‘w’ in their signature yesterday, that a volunteer may have the option of looking at that ballot and deciding that vote is null and void.”
The fact that Trump and Scott “are fighting like you know what to stop the vote count, that ought to tell you something,” Gillum said. “They don’t get to shut down the process because they’re not winning.”
Gillum and Nelson have argued each vote should be counted and the process should 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, 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.
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. 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 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. And how counts proceed is now clearly spelled out.
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.