JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The first election workers have begun the enormous task of recounting ballots in Florida’s bitterly close races for the U.S. Senate and governor, ramping up their efforts after the secretary of state ordered a review of the two nationally watched contests.
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.
The 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.
The Florida secretary of state ordered the recounts Saturday, an unprecedented step for the two flagship races in a state that took five weeks to decide the 2000 presidential election. Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s office said it was unaware 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.
At the noon Saturday deadline for the counties to report results to the state Division of Elections, three of the state's top races were within the one-half of 1 percent margin that triggers recounts:
- Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis had a 33,684 votes lead over Democratic rival Andrew Gillum, a margin of 0.41 percentage point out of 8.2 million votes cast.
- In the U.S. Senate race, Republican Gov. Rick Scott was ahead of Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson by 12,562 votes, a margin of 0.15 percentage points.
- In the race for Florida Agriculture Commissioner, Democrat Nikki Fried was leading Republican rival Matt Caldwell by 5,326 votes, a margin of 0.06 percentage points.
Miami-Dade County election officials began feeding ballots into scanning machines Saturday evening.
Elections officials in many of the state's counties, including Duval, Nassau, Hillsborough and Pinellas, began recounts Sunday morning. In Jacksonville, more than 381,000 votes need to be recounted by the 3 p.m. deadline Thursday.
Duval County supervisor of elections Mike Hogan expects the process to take about 17 hours.
"We expect very few hiccups or problems, and it should go very quickly," Hogan said. "Everyone was preparing for it because they knew what the numbers are, and didn’t expect margins to move very much."
The process started with about 70,000 absentee and early votes.
Three ballot counting machines have been working at peak performance, counting as many as 3,000 ballots a minute, according to election officials in Duval County.
"Once you handle a ballot two or three times, it gets a little weak, so we had to re-duplicate several of the ballots because they were torn as they went through or something like that,” Hogan said.
Fortunately, out of the 70,000 absentee ballots that were counted, only 51 had to be reproduced because they either had stray marks or tears on them. After the absentee ballots were counted, it was time to move on to the early voting ballots. Once those are finished, provisional and military absentee ballots are next in line, but election the office is still receiving some of those military ballots in the mail.
"The military have 10 days to get their ballots here and we may have a provisional or two that will get in there, but overall, the numbers are not going to change very much,” said Hogan.
Jacksonville City Council member Anna Lopez Brosche was there to watch the process begin Sunday morning.
"Certainly, everyone is concerned about making sure that everything is being done according to the law," Lopez Brosche said.
St. Johns, Baker and other counties will begin their recounts Monday.
In a machine recount, all ballots are fed through voting machines. Ballots with “undervotes” or “overvotes” -- in which voters may have skipped races or made extra marks in races, causing their ballots to be rejected by the machines -- are set aside, or “outstacked.”
In races where the margin remains under 0.25 of 1 percent after Thursday's deadline, a manual recount will be ordered. At that point, county canvassing boards will individually examine the “outstacked” ballots to try and determine the voter's intent.
The recount opens against a backdrop of political tensions. President Donald Trump on Saturday tweeted without evidence that the elections were being stolen. Angry protesters gathered at an elections office in Broward County on Saturday, waving signs and shouting with bullhorns.
Following the announcement of a recount, Gillum withdrew his concession in the governor’s race.
“Let me say clearly, I am replacing my words of concession with an uncompromised and unapologetic call that we count every single vote,” he said, adding that he would accept whatever outcome emerges.
In a video statement released Saturday, DeSantis said the election results were “clear and unambiguous” and that he was preparing to become the state’s next governor. He also thanked the state’s supervisors of elections, canvassing boards and the staffs for “working hard to ensure that all lawful votes are counted.”
“It is important that everyone involved in the election process strictly adhere to the rule of law which is the foundation for our nation,” he said.
Scott says he is asking the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate elections offices in Palm Beach and Broward counties, questioning whether they were trying to inflate the Democratic vote.
In the Senate recount, Scott implored the state’s sheriffs to “watch for any violations and take appropriate action” during the recount.
Scott and his supporters, including Trump, have alleged that voter fraud is underway in Democratic-leaning Broward County, where the Republican lead has narrowed since Election Day. There’s no evidence of voter fraud and the state’s election division, which Scott runs, said Saturday that its observers in Broward had seen “no evidence of criminal activity.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Friday it has not launched any investigation into election fraud.
The scene recalled 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, and thus giving Bush the presidency.
Florida was mocked for the way it handled the infamous 2000 recount, especially since there was no uniform process then on how to proceed. That has changed, with the Legislature passing a clear procedure on how a recount should be conducted.
Florida is also conducting a recount in a third statewide race. Democrat Nikki Fried had a 0.07 percentage point lead lead over Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell in the race for agriculture commissioner, one of Florida’s three Cabinet seats.
Recounts were also ordered Saturday in three smaller contests:
- The race in Hillsborough County’s state Senate District 18 between Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, and House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. In the unofficial results, Cruz had 104,001 votes, or 50.09 percent, while Young had 103,625 votes, or 49.91 percent.
- The race in Volusia County’s House District 26 between Rep. Patrick Henry, D-Daytona Beach, and Republican Elizabeth Fetterhoff. In the unofficial results, Fetterhoff had 30,591 votes, or 50.05 percent, while Henry had 30,532 votes, or 49.95 percent.
- The race for an open seat in Palm Beach County’s House District 89 between Republican Mike Caruso and Democrat Jim Bonfiglio. In the unofficial results, Caruso had 39,228 votes, or 50.02 percent, while Bonfiglio had 39,191 votes, or 49.98 percent.