Florida's bitter recount battle lurches toward deadline

Scott wins 1st round; Nelson wins in Palm Beach; federal judge hears suits

By Gary Fineout and Kelli Kennedy, Associated Press, Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - With time running out, Florida's election recount drama lurched forward Wednesday amid a maelstrom of courtroom arguments, broken machines, allegations of irregularities and President Donald Trump's ongoing criticism.

Many counties have wrapped up their machine recount ahead of a Thursday deadline to complete reviews of the U.S. Senate and governor races, but larger Democratic strongholds are still racing to meet the deadline.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott agreed to step down from the state panel responsible for certifying the final results. Scott is locked in a tight race with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and has already suggested fraud may be taking place in some counties. Critics have said Scott should have no role in overseeing the election given his close contest.

Trump, who has already lashed out over the recount, added to the growing partisan firestorm by arguing without evidence that some people unlawfully participated in the election by dressing in disguise.

"When people get in line that have absolutely no right to vote and they go around in circles," Trump said in an interview with The Daily Caller published Wednesday. "Sometimes they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again."

The state elections department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, both run by Republican appointees, have said they haven't seen any evidence of voter fraud of this sort.

Adding to the fray, however, a top attorney at the Florida Department of State sent a letter last week asking federal prosecutors to investigate whether Democrats distributed false information that could have resulted in voters having mail-in ballots disqualified.

Four county supervisors turned over information that showed Democratic Party operatives changed official forms to say that voters had until two days after the election to fix any problems with mail-in ballot signatures. Under current law, a voter has until the day before Election Day to fix a problem.

Meanwhile, problems continue to arise in Palm Beach County, where tallying machines have overheated. That's caused mismatched results with the recount of 174,000 early voting ballots, forcing workers to go back and redo their work with no time to spare.

"The machines are old," said Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, who said they underwent maintenance right before the election. "I don't think they were designed to work 24/7 -- kind of like running an old car from here to L.A. And so, you know, things happen to them."

Right now, Palm Beach County looks like it could miss the Thursday deadline, even though Nelson and Democrats filed lawsuits seeking to suspend it.

Lawyers for Democrats also asked a federal judge Wednesday to set aside the state law mandating that mailed-in votes be thrown out if the signature on the envelope doesn't match the signature on file.

No less than six federal lawsuits have been filed so far in Tallahassee. Nelson's campaign has also filed a lawsuit seeking public records from a north Florida elections supervisor who allowed voters in GOP-heavy Bay County to email their ballots in apparent violation of state law.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, citing a well-known "Star Trek" episode, said during a hearing Wednesday that "I feel a little bit like Captain Kirk in the episode with the Tribbles where they start to multiply."

The developments are fueling frustrations among Democrats and Republicans as the recount unfolds more than a week after Election Day. Democrats have urged state officials to do whatever it takes to make sure every vote is counted. Republicans, including Trump, have argued without evidence that voter fraud threatens to steal races from the GOP.

The Republican candidates for governor and Senate, Ron DeSantis and Scott, hold the narrowest of leads over their Democratic counterparts, Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson.

Scott was in Washington, D.C., while the court battles rage on. He stood at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's left shoulder Wednesday when the Kentucky Republican welcomed GOP senators who will take their seats in January when the new Congress is sworn in.

During the brief photo-op in McConnell's Capitol office, Scott did not reply to a question about whether he contends there was fraud in the election.

State law requires a machine recount in races where the margin is less than 0.5 percentage points. In the Senate race, Scott's lead over Nelson was 0.14 percentage points. In the governor's contest, unofficial results showed DeSantis ahead of Gillum by 0.41 percentage points.

Once the machine recount is complete, a hand recount will be ordered in any race where the difference is 0.25 percentage points or less, meaning it could take even longer to complete the review of the Senate race if the difference remains narrow.

If the Senate race does go to a hand recount, the deadline for counties to finish is Sunday.

The lawsuit, however, that could significantly alter the final vote count is the one asking Judge Walker to allow votes to be counted if the signatures on the ballot and initial registration form don't match. Lawyers for Democrats are including in the evidence testimony from former Florida U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy.
  
As the vote counts tightened last week, Murphy checked the Palm Beach County elections website and saw his mail-in vote was scrapped because of an invalid signature.
  
"That's crazy. It shows how broken our system is," Murphy said, adding "In a state like Florida that has a history of really close elections ... where it's really a coin toss of a state, these kind of errors and mishaps," are troubling.

Copyright 2018 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.