How Florida would handle a recount

By Gary Fineout, Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - There's a chance that Florida's bitter and expensive governor's race between incumbent Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic challenger Charlie Crist could trigger a recount -- a word that sends shudders through the state.

Polls consistently show the contest between Scott and Crist tied, but if that sticks voting officials insist a recount would not be a replay of 2000, when the presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was not decided until 36 days later as both sides battled in the courts over the state's results. The U.S. Supreme Court halted an ongoing recount and Bush won Florida -- and the presidency -- by 537 votes.

The recount exposed the state's voting procedures to criticism and widespread ridicule. It also triggered an overhaul of the state's voting laws and machinery.

Mark Herron, one of the lawyers on the side of Vice President Gore, said there are major differences between how the state would handle a recount now.

"The rules are more structured and it's easier to conduct a recount than it was previously," Herron said. "But by the same token there's a lot of faith in the machines now."

Here's a look at how a recount would work in Florida:

What triggers a recount? No one can request a recount. For statewide races it is ordered by the secretary of state.

An automatic machine recount is required if the first set of returns, due four days after the election, show that a candidate was defeated by one-half of 1 percent or less. If the margin between the two candidates is then one-quarter of 1 percent or less, then a manual recount of "undervotes" and "overvotes" takes place. "Undervotes" are ballots that reflect that a voter skipped a race. "Overvotes" are when a voter chooses more than one candidate. Those votes are reviewed to see if they were legitimately disqualified during the machine count.

Can a recount be prevented even if the margin is close? Yes, the candidate who is behind can request in writing that an automatic machine recount not be conducted. A manual recount can be prevented if the losing candidate requests that it not be conducted. There is also no manual recount if the total number of "undervotes" and "overvotes" is not enough to chance the outcome of the election.

Is there still a chance for "hanging chads" in Florida? No. After the chaotic 2000 election, Florida did away with what are known as "punch card" ballots that required a voter to punch a hole in their ballot. Florida briefly allowed touchscreen machines, but while Crist was governor from 2007-11 the state moved to what are known as "optical scan ballots." These require a voter to fill in a circle next to the candidate's name. A machine reads the ballot and registers the vote. The paper ballot is retained by local election officials.

Can any voter be turned away from the polls? No. Elections now allow for the casting of what is known as a "provisional ballot" if there is a question about a voter's eligibility. Voters have up until two days following the election to present evidence to local supervisors to prove that their vote should be counted. But Florida law does require votes be cast in the correct precinct or the provisional ballot will not be counted.

Can an election still wind up being decided in the courts? Yes. Florida law still allows someone to "contest" the election results in certain instances. The losing candidate has until 10 days after final certification of the results to file a lawsuit challenging the outcome. 

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