Recount Frenzy: Only in Florida

leon county canvassing board
The Leon County Canvassing Board prepares to start looking through ballots. Julie Hauserman photo

Amid lawsuits, controversy, protests, conspiracy theories, and aggressive tweeting from Europe by President Donald Trump, voting recounts began Saturday across Florida, with high-profile political races still hanging in the balance almost a week after the general election.

Saturday’s deadline for tallying unofficial votes across Florida spawned recounts in the pivotal races for Florida Governor, the U.S. Senate, and the Cabinet-level Agriculture Commissioner, among other contests. The machine recount will last through Thursday, and a hand-recount could happen after that. Barring any major legal meltdown, the whole election process should be wrapped up before Thanksgiving.

President Trump continued to make unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud in Florida, tweeting from his European trip:  “Trying to STEAL two big elections. We are watching closely!”

His Republican followers took to social media with a wild array of conspiracy theories about ballots and suspected Democratic trickery.

The Governor’s Race

Democrat Andrew Gillum, who earlier conceded the governor’s race election night to Republican Ron DeSantis, held a news conference Saturday to say that “this process is not over until every single vote is counted” – a mantra of the Democratic Party.

“I am replacing my words of concession with an uncompromised and unapologetic call that we count every single vote,” the Tallahassee mayor said, “And I say this recognizing that my fate in this may or may not change.”

As of Saturday, Gillum was 33,684 votes behind DeSantis, according to the first set of unofficial vote tallies from the Florida Division of Elections. About 8.2-million people voted in the governor’s race.

Capturing the lead may prove difficult for Gillum, and DeSantis was already using the phrase, “With the election behind us,” in a Saturday video statement.

DeSantis said that: “At noon, today, Supervisors of Elections from across the state submitted their election returns to the Secretary of State. Those results are clear and unambiguous, just as they were on Election Night, and I am honored by the trust that Floridians have placed in me to serve as your next governor.”

DeSantis, an attorney, Navy veteran and former Congressman, said he’s already begun transition efforts “to build an administration that can secure Florida’s future.”

Meanwhile, Gillum told reporters:

“I think it’s incumbent upon all of us, all of the candidates, who remain in this now-recount process that we will compel people toward our better angels as we do what is right and what is in the best interest of the people of our state and the people of our country, and that is to reassure hope in the democratic process, not to undermine it and certainly not to shred it.”

The Agriculture Commissioner Race

The surprise race of the election is for a state Cabinet post that normally doesn’t draw much attention: Florida Commissioner of Agriculture.

Republican lawmaker Matt Caldwell had more votes on election night in the race, and Democrat Nicole “Nikki” Fried was trailing by a small margin.

But in the days following the election, Fried’s vote count kept climbing, and the final tally on Saturday showed that she was now in the lead, by 5,326 votes. The Democratic Party and other groups and fans praised Fried as the first elected female Agriculture Commissioner in Florida. She is an attorney, former public defender and outspoken medical marijuana advocate.

However, the vote margin is so small that it requires an automatic recount. And Caldwell and his campaign on Friday filed a lawsuit in Broward County, against Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes. Broward is a Democratic stronghold and Fried lives in Broward.

Caldwell’s lawsuit raises questions about the accuracy of the vote count, among other concerns, saying there is “doubt as to whether the Supervisor of Elections is counting only those absentee ballots received by 7 p.m. on November 6, 2018 (election day) or whether the Supervisor of Elections is counting absentee ballots that were received after 7 p.m. on November 6, 2018.”

Caldwell alleged that counting absentee ballots received after 7 p.m. on election day would violate state law.

Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Penalosa characterized Caldwell’s lawsuit as an attempt “to throw out votes in an election he is losing.”

“Florida is not a banana republic and Matt Caldwell is not a third-world dictator,”  Penalosa said. “In America, we don’t allow politicians to manipulate the courts or government agencies to interfere with legal elections that they are losing. ”

The Court Battles

In the U.S. Senate race between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, Scott is still in the lead based on Saturday counts, but the lead has shriveled.

Nelson’s recount attorney, Marc Elias, noted that, as votes are counted, the 56,764 lead that Scott had over Nelson on election night has shrunk to just 12,562 votes.

In Broward County, about 24,000 ballots registered a vote in the governor’s race but not in the Senate race. These are considered “undervotes,” and Elias said closer inspection may lead to more of these ballots being recorded during the recount.

Elias said he remained confident that after the recount “Senator Nelson will be returning to Washington for another term.”

Meanwhile, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida may go to court over serious concerns about Gov. Scott’s behavior.

They’ve written a letter to Gov. Scott, requesting to “immediately relinquish authority and remove yourself from any control of any person or agency responsible for the processing and counting of ballots from the November 6 general election. Removing yourself will help to ensure that there is no appearance of any impropriety, undue influence or conflict of interest in directives being given to election officials. “

The two groups told Scott: “You have intentionally politicized governance of the elections by publicly threatening a show of force — calling for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the state’s highest law enforcement agency, to investigate ‘rampant fraud’ in South Florida when the FDLE and Department of State have indicated that there were no indications of fraud or criminal activity. And you angrily blamed your opposing political party for orchestrating an attempt to steal the election.”

The letter ends with a demand: “Please issue a public statement that you will recuse yourself and remove yourself from any oversight of the 2018 election immediately or we will have no choice but to seek a formal emergency remedy from the courts.”

As to the courts, a federal lawsuit is still in play – the one that Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and the Democratic Executive Committee of Florida filed against Ken Detzner, Florida’s Secretary of State.

Saturday, U. S. District Judge Robert Hinkle disqualified himself from that case, saying in a brief order: “After conducting the scheduling conference and entering an order on November 9, I remembered that my brother is a party to a lawsuit involving Governor Rick Scott. This would not affect my handling of this case, but a reasonable person might think otherwise. Accordingly, I hereby disqualify myself from this case.”

The federal lawsuit asks for  an extension of time for vote counting, and also asks that the Court ensure that all signed absentee and provisional ballots are counted and included in vote totals.

On Friday, attorneys for Nelson and the Democratic committee asked for a preliminary injunction to stop the counting until the issues are resolved, to avoid unfairly disenfranchising voters. The state deadline for the first unofficial count was noon Saturday.

Hinkle didn’t rule on the issues and set another hearing for Wednesday. And following Hinkle’s disqualification, Chief Judge Mark E. Walker was added to the case.

Lawyers representing Secretary of State Detzner filed a motion Saturday, telling the court that Nelson and the Democratic committee “ask for too much too late,” and the court shouldn’t allow the state to stray from the various deadlines in the voting process.

The attorneys noted that the unofficial vote count on Saturday as well as later deadlines “could significantly delay the conclusion of the 2018 General Election.  It could delay not only the recounts but the submission of a second set of unofficial results, the submission of official results and the State’s ultimate certification of official election results.”

Nelson’s attorney, Elias, argued that if the federal judge ruled in the case, it would likely not stop the recount, but could mean that some ballots that have been rejected for technical problems would then be included in the statewide count.

On Saturday, recounting began in Leon County, home to Tallahassee.

Lawyers and other representatives from the Nelson, Scott, DeSantis, and Gillum campaigns showed up when Leon County’s election canvassing board convened at 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon, with Leon Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley taking time to explain the arcane details of how officials would conduct the machine recount.

Behind him, workers were unloading boxes of ballots and running them through the voting machines again.

– Reporter Mitch Perry contributed to this report

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.
Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.

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