Day 1 of hand recount in Florida's bitter US Senate race

Duval County finished Senate recount late Friday; 9,676 cabinet votes to go

By Jim Piggott - Reporter, Gary Fineout and Brenda Farrington, Associated Press, Steve Patrick - News4Jax digital managing editor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A legally required hand recount of ballots in Florida’s acrimonious U.S. Senate contest begins today, less than a day after an initial review by ballot-counting machines showed Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson continue to be separated by fewer than 13,000 votes out of 8.1 million ballots cast.

A survey of Florida's 67 counties by The Associated Press puts the number of overvotes and undervotes Friday at 93,310 ballots in the race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and GOP Gov. Rick Scott.

The contest for governor between Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum appeared all but over Thursday, with a machine recount showing DeSantis with a 33,683-vote advantage -- a large enough advantage to avoid a hand recount.

Gillum, who conceded on Election Night only to retract his concession later, said in a statement that “it is not over until every legally casted vote is counted.”

The recount has been fraught with problems. Palm Beach County, a large Democratic stronghold, was unable to finish its machine recount by the Thursday deadline due to machines breaking down. A federal judge rejected a request to extend the recount deadline.

“We gave a heroic effort,” said Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher. If the county had three or four more hours, it would have made the deadline to recount ballots in the Senate race, she said.

Meanwhile, election officials in Tampa area decided against turning in the results of Hillsborough County's machine recount, which came up with 846 fewer votes than originally counted. And media in South Florida reported that Broward County finished its machine recount but missed the deadline by a few minutes.

Counties were ordered this past weekend to conduct a machine recount of three statewide races because the margins were so tight. The next stage is a manual review of ballots that were not counted by machines -- mostly undervotes or undervotes --  to see if there is a way to figure out voter intent.

Duval County's hand recount of 12,195 ballots started just after 11 a.m. Thursday. The recount of 2,519 questionable ballots in the Senate race was completed just before 5 p.m. and the ballots were to be resorted so they can examine the 9,676 undervotes or overvotes in the agriculture secretary race.

Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan said the hand recount in the Senate race resulted in 92 additional votes for Nelson, and 38 additional votes for Scott.

The individual ballot examinations are done at a dozen tables, each with two employees of the supervisor of election's office closely watched by election observers from both parties.

"And they’re taking this one step at a time, making sure everything is right," Duval County Republican Party Chairwoman Karyn Morton said. "We're pleased (with the) way things are going."

The Democratic Party did challenge some ballots were no candidate was selected, concerned that these could be duplicates. 

Will these ballots count?

Any vote where the voter's intent is not obvious or that is questioned by one of the party observers is reviewed by the three-member canvassing board, which makes the final determination.

"The ones where you see a mark other than the oval, those of the ones that are a little bit difficult," Hogan said. "So does take a little more time. you really have to struggle with (those)."

BALLOT SLIDESHOW: Do these ballots count?
VIDEO: Jim Piggott takes us inside the recount process

Counties must report the results of the manual recount, plus overseas ballots still arriving and those where the voter's signature is verified by noon Sunday.

Unofficial vote totals after machine recount

Source: Florida Division of Elections
 

The even closer races

It certainly doesn't get the attention of the U.S. Senate race or governor's contest, but the machine recount in the Florida agriculture commissioner race found Democrat Nikki Fried was only 5,326 votes ahead of Republican Matt Caldwell -- 0.06 percent. A hand recount was also ordered in that race, and there are far more ballots with undervotes in that race to be considered. 

Manual recounts are also required in three state legislative races: in Hillsborough County’s Senate District 18, where Democratic challenger Janet Cruz leads incumbent Republican Dana Young; in Volusia County’s House District 26, where Republican Elizabeth Fetterhoff is ahead of incumbent Democrat Patrick Henry; and in Palm Beach County’s House District 89, where Republican Mike Caruso leads Democrat Jim Bonfiglio.

Political posturing and lawsuits pending

Thursday evening, after the machine recount, Scott called on Nelson to end the battle.

It’s time for Nelson “to respect the will of the voters and graciously bring this process to an end rather than proceed with yet another count of the votes -- which will yield the same result and bring more embarrassment to the state that we both love and have served,” the governor’s statement said.

Six election-related lawsuits are pending in federal court in Tallahassee, and at least one in state court.

The situation drew the ire of U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who slammed the state for repeatedly failing to anticipate election problems. He also said the state law on recounts appears to violate the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that decided the presidency in 2000.

“We have been the laughingstock of the world, election after election, and we chose not to fix this,” Walker said at a hearing Thursday.

Walker vented his anger at state lawmakers and Palm Beach County officials, saying they should have made sure they had the equipment to handle this kind of a recount. But he said he couldn’t extend the recount deadline because he didn’t know when Palm Beach County would finish its work.

The overarching problem was created by the Florida Legislature, which Walker said passed a recount law that appears to run afoul of the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, by locking in procedures that do not allow for potential problems.

Walker also ordered that voters be given until 5 p.m. Saturday to show a valid identification and fix their ballots if they haven’t been counted due to mismatched signatures. Republicans challenged this order and were turned down by an appeals court.

State officials testified that nearly 4,000 mailed-in ballots were set aside because local officials decided the signatures on the envelopes did not match the signatures on file. If those voters can prove their identity, their votes will now be counted and included in final official returns due from each county by noon Sunday.

Walker was asked by Democrats to require local officials to provide a list of people whose ballots were rejected. But the judge refused the request as “inappropriate.”

Under state law, a hand review is required when the victory margin is 0.25 percentage points or less. A state website’s unofficial results show Scott ahead of Nelson by 0.15 percentage points. The margin between DeSantis and Gillum was 0.41 percent.

Late Thursday, Walker rejected a challenge by Nelson and Democrats to the rules of the hand recount in the Senate race. During the hand recount, elections officials look at just the ballots that weren't recorded by voting machines. Walker found the state's rules were reasonable and constitutional.

The margin between Scott and Nelson had not changed much in the last few days, conceded Marc Elias, an attorney working for Nelson’s campaign. But he said that he expects it to shrink due to the hand recount and the ruling on signatures.

Democrats want state officials to do whatever it takes to make sure every eligible vote is counted. Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have argued without evidence that voter fraud threatens to steal races from the GOP.

The state must certify the results of the election by next Tuesday, but it may not end there. Candidates will then have 10 days to file suit in state court.

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