The supervisor of elections in Florida’s heavily Democratic Palm Beach County said Sunday that she did not believe her department would meet a Thursday deadline to complete recounts in the Sunshine State’s historically tight gubernatorial and Senate races, threatening to further confuse an increasingly chaotic and politically fraught process.
The supervisor, Susan Bucher, told reporters that she did not expect to meet the deadline due to aging equipment. Florida Department of State spokeswoman Sarah Revell told Fox News that under state law, if a county does not submit their results by the deadline, then the results on file at the time take their place. Revell added that Florida’s Secretary of State has no authority to grant extensions.
“Supervisors of Elections are independent officials and they are responsible for deciding when to upgrade or modernize their equipment,” Revell added.
The recount in most other major population centers, including Miami-Dade and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in the Tampa Bay area, were taking place without incident on Sunday. Smaller counties are expected to begin their reviews Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.
Bucher spoke hours after the campaign of Republican Senate candidate Rick Scott — which secured an early legal victory against Democratic-leaning Broward County officials over the weekend — went back to court with a fresh salvo of emergency complaints against both Broward and Palm Beach counties. One complaint requests that state sheriff’s officers “impound and secure all voting machines, tallying devices and ballots when they are not in use until the conclusion of the recount.”
In a separate lawsuit, Scott’s team is asking a judge to throw out votes tallied by the Broward County Canvassing Board after Saturday’s noon deadline, in apparent violation of state law, which requires that “[t]he canvassing board shall submit … unofficial returns to the Department of State for each federal, statewide, state, or multicounty office or ballot measure no later than … noon on the fourth day after any general or other election.”
“The Broward and Palm Beach County Supervisors of Elections has already demonstrated a blatant disregard for Florida’s elections laws, making it more important than ever that we continue to do everything possible to prevent fraud and ensure this recount is operated responsibly,” Chris Hartline, a Scott spokesman, said in a statement.
Lawyer Marc Elias, who is representing the campaign of Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, fired back on Twitter.
“Lets [sic] be clear about what we are witnessing in Florida,” Elias wrote. “The sitting Governor is seeking to throw out lawful votes and seize the voting equipment in order to win an election.”
“Somebody needs to cut down on the Red Bull,” a Scott spokesperson wrote on Twitter, in response to a statement by Florida Democrats Executive Director Juan Penalosa that compared Scott to a Latin American dictator. “We requested that ballots and voting machines be protected when not in use. The only reason not to protect the integrity of the ballots and the voting machines is if you are actively promoting or hoping for fraud.”
Somebody needs to cut down on the Red Bull.
We requested that ballots and voting machines be protected when not in use. The only reason not to protect the integrity of the ballots and the voting machines is if you are actively promoting or hoping for fraud. https://t.co/cqcslkE6ox
— Chris Hartline (@ChrisHartline) November 11, 2018
But Democrats continued to bash the Republican’s effort. “If Rick Scott wanted to make sure every legal ballot is counted, he would not be suing to try and stop voters from having their legal ballot counted as intended,” Nelson said in a statement. “He’s doing this for the same reason he’s been making false and panicked claims about voter fraud — he’s worried that when all the votes are counted he’ll lose this election. We will not allow him to undermine the democratic process and will use every legal tool available to protect the rights of Florida voters.”
Unofficial results show that Republican former 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 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.
The litigation threw yet another wrench in an increasingly chaotic process reminiscent of the 2000 presidential election recount fiasco. In Broward County, the scheduled start of the recount was delayed Sunday because of a problem with one of the tabulation machines. The Republican Party accused Broward’s supervisor of elections, Brenda Snipes, of continuing to compromise the process with “incompetence and gross mismanagement” following the delay, which was resolved within two hours.
Broward County election planning director Joe D’Alessandro told Fox News that machines in Broward are currently resorting some 3.5 million pages of ballots, and officials said that process could take more than 30 hours alone before any actual counting begins.
Broward 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, who has long been accused of mismanaging county elections and has been sanctioned by a judge for destroying ballots in a 2016 congressional race, said it would be unfair to throw out all the ballots.
“#BrowardElections office admits the vote count they submitted to state includes 22 illegal votes,” Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio wrote on Twitter Sunday. “We know about these 22 because they got caught breaking law in reviewing 202 ballots. How can anyone trust more illegal votes aren’t in their final count?”
Undervoting — a phenomenon in which voters don’t cast votes in all the races on the ballot — has become a prominent issue in the race. Rubio pointed out that Broward County is showing that approximately 25,000 fewer votes were cast in the Senate race than the gubernatorial contest — a significant undervote that could be explained by Snipes’ ballot design, which placed the Senate contest directly below the ballot’s instructions, out of line with other races.
In 2006, the last time Nelson was on the ballot alongside a gubernatorial race, only 4,100 fewer people in Broward voted in the Senate race than in the election for governor. (However, at the statewide level this year, 34,051 fewer people voted in the Senate race than the gubernatorial race, a lower figure than the 35,736 undervote in 2006 — even though 3 million more votes were cast in 2018 compared to 2006.)
“How ironic would it be if those who are now bashing our criticism of Snipes in the end wind up arguing that a ballot design error made by her is the reason the Democrats lost?” Rubio said Sunday.
This might sound familiar. Bad ballot design may have led voters in Broward County, Florida, to overlook the US Senate race between Rick Scott and Bill Nelson. https://t.co/IKqhJ0jcQc pic.twitter.com/VPGxUgPRqj
— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) November 9, 2018
Other Republicans suggested that Democrats shouldn’t get their hopes up as the recounts get underway.
“Scott trails DeSantis by 10,754 votes in Broward, and Nelson trails Gillum by 10,343,” a Scott campaign source told Fox News. “The idea that the undervotes in Broward County is an opportunity for Nelson to significantly close the gap is not and has never been based on anything but fantasy.”
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.
Republicans have repeatedly cried foul throughout the process, both in court and outside Florida election offices. On Saturday, GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz compared Broward County to a “banana republic” and posted video apparently showing him being denied access to election facilities on “safety” grounds.
Protesters chanted, “Lock her up” outside the building earlier in the day, referring to Snipes.
I was told it was “unsafe” for me to video trucks moving things in and out of the Broward SOE office. Then, they block court-ordered access. It’s a banana republic down here. #BrowardElection #sayfie #opengaetz pic.twitter.com/wIrBQRniRL
— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) November 10, 2018
Rubio and other Florida officials have posted numerous videos and images on social media apparently showing boxes of ballots being left behind in public spaces or improperly loaded onto private trucks.
.@browardsheriff responded this morning to Tamarac Lakes Community Center after a citizen reported finding #BrowardElection equipment & 2 locked ballot boxes unattended. Sheriff office secured the scene & equipment. BSO case #07-1811-000971 #Sayfie pic.twitter.com/al8g5DyIir
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) November 10, 2018
At an emergency court hearing on Friday, state Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips ruled there has “been a violation of the Florida Constitution,” as well as the state’s public records act, by Broward officials who had not turned over requested records about the number of votes to be counted. But, Gaetz said, Florida officials were still blocking Republicans from monitoring how they were handling boxes of ballots.
“We have very specific laws in the state to try to prevent fraud,” Scott, the incumbent Florida governor, told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. “We had to go to court to force the supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County and Broward County to comply with the law, which is there to prevent fraud.”
Scott added: “Sen. Nelson is clearly trying to commit fraud to win this election, that’s all this is.” Asked to elaborate on his accusation, he replied, “Well, it’s his team.”
“His lawyers said that a noncitizen should vote, that’s one,” Scott continued. “Two, he’s gone to trial and said that fraudulent ballots should be counted, ballots have already been thrown out because they were not done properly. He said those should be counted.”
Lawyers for Nelson and Gillum on Friday had objected to the rejection of a provisional ballot cast by a noncitizen, according to a transcript obtained by Fox News.
The incident occurred during a canvassing meeting in Palm Beach County, where provisional ballots were being examined. According to the draft transcript of the meeting, taken by a court reporter hired by the Florida Republican Party, a provisional ballot was ordered excluded from the count, as it came from a non-U.S. citizen.
The Nelson campaign distanced itself from the objections, which it said that it had not authorized.
The recount reviews 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.
Snipes, the Broward County election supervisor who has held her office since 2003, is no stranger to controversy. Earlier this year, Scott’s administration said it was monitoring her office after a judge ruled in May the county broke federal law by destroying ballots in Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s 2016 Democratic primary race against Tim Canova, Politico reported.
Snipes claimed the issue had been “blown out of proportion.”
In August, a judge sided with the Florida GOP in its challenge of how the county handled absentee ballots. Republicans claimed Snipes’ office was opening ballots in private, preventing people from challenging if they were properly cast, according to Politico.
And then in 2016, Broward County violated the law when it posted early voting results online before polls even closed, the Miami Herald reported.
As the recount unfolded, Republicans urged their Democratic opponents to give up and allow the state to move on.
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. Gillum and Nelson have argued each vote should be counted and the process allowed to take its course.
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 winner over Al Gore by 537 votes, thus giving Bush the presidency.
But much has changed since then. In 2000, each county had a separate 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 fill in a circle next to 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 correctly 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.
Fox News’ Peter Doocy, Ivonne Amor and Kathleen Reuschle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.