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Inside Florida’s ‘infuriating and disheartening’ recount

LAUDERHILL, Fla. — So far, the recount of three statewide races in Florida has withstood several challenges that have tested a system the state established to avoid a repeat of the 2000 presidential election.

The too-close-to-call elections posed a number of potential pitfalls, including overseeing a simultaneous recount of three statewide races; tallying votes in a midterm year with record high turnout; navigating multiple lawsuits over the recount; and facing political pressure from President Donald Trump, who has called for the state to end its recount before all the votes had been received and made evidence-free allegations of election fraud.

Not to mention the pressure of delivering on command in the national spotlight, before millions of watchful Americans who lived through the hanging-chads drama of Bush v. Gore.

The process has not been flawless. But 66 of Florida’s 67 counties met a Thursday afternoon deadline to complete a machine recount of the results in the U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner’s races, all of which were too close to call on Election Day.

In the Senate race, Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s lead over incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson increased by 865 votes after the machine recount, giving him a led of .13 percent. Scott now leads by nearly 13,400 total votes. The margin in the governor’s race, where Republican Ron DeSantis led Democrat Andrew Gillum by more than 34,000 votes before the recount, did not drop below .25 percent after the recount, the cutoff that triggers an automatic hand recount under the rules enacted after the 2000 election.

The hand recount for the Senate race is slated to start Friday morning.

“There’s so much anxiety and over-the-top expressions of concern about fraud. Really, at the end of the day, what’s happening is a process put in place after 2000” to ensure that recounts run smoothly, Cynthia Busch, the chair of the Democratic Party in Broward County, said in an interview before the recount results were announced.

Yet a debate over election integrity has threatened to overshadow the new-and-improved recount process, turning what might have been a success story into a highly partisan, swing state battle with national implications for both parties as they look ahead to the 2020 presidential race.

Broward County, north of Miami, has been ground zero for this year’s recount fight. For several days in a row, Republican and Democratic voters have held side-by-side protests outside of an elections office in a stripmall in Lauderhill, where the county is conducting its recount. Both groups have been waving signs and competing to see which side can chant the loudest.

Republican protesters wave signs at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill, Fla. on Wednesday, November 14. Photo by Scott McIntyre for PBS New Hour

Inside the building, roughly three dozen election officials worked around the clock for days feeding ballots into a dozen machines, in view of reporters watching on the other side of a glass wall. The recount in Broward County was slated to be conducted in private, but the media was allowed to observe after Scott’s campaign sued the county’s chief elections official, Brenda Snipes, to make the proceedings public.

Republicans have demanded the resignation of Snipes, who is facing widespread criticism for her handling of the election.

“I’m upset with the way the votes were handled. I feel like there was a lot of suspicious activity on the part of the Broward County elections office,” said John Virginio, a Republican who joined the protests Wednesday.

Republicans have also questioned why Scott’s lead over Nelson shrunk by several thousand votes from the initial results reported on election night. Trump has helped fuel suspicion by repeatedly attacking the recount process on Twitter.

“An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!” Trump tweeted Monday. The president took aim Wednesday at Broward County and Palm Beach County, another area that has drawn scrutiny in the recount process.

Voting technicians work in the ballot room at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections. Photo by Scott McIntyre for PBS New Hour

“When will Bill Nelson concede in Florida? The characters running Broward and Palm Beach voting will not be able to “find” enough votes, too much spotlight on them now!” Trump said.

The president has not presented evidence of voter fraud in Florida.

Since the Nov. 6 election Scott has also gone on the offensive, arguing that several lawsuits by the Nelson campaign and Democratic Party to have more votes counted represented an attempt by liberal Washington lawyers to steal the election.

The tone of the attacks grew so aggressive that a county judge presiding over one lawsuit urged both campaigns Monday to “ramp down the rhetoric.”

But the campaigns have mostly ignored the suggestion. Many Republican voters in Florida said Trump had influenced their views of the recount, a sign that the president’s yearslong criticism of the country’s election system is having an impact.

“There’s fraud, 100 percent,” said Jody Steinlauf, a Republican voter who backed Scott and DeSantis. Steinlauf said she didn’t trust the election results, and neither did many of the people she knew. “There’s no more trust,” she said, adding that Republicans are “fighting for what’s right, to make sure this election isn’t stolen away from us.”

Another Republican voter, Art Manon, said the recount reminded him of an election in a “banana republic,” not in the United States. “It’s unprofessional,” Manon said.

Democratic officials have dismissed the fraud allegations. At a rally Wednesday outside of the Broward County elections board office, just feet away from a competing Republican protest, Nelson and Gillum supporters called for every vote to get counted and argued that Trump was peddling conspiracy theories of fraud.

“When he says that as president, he knows that people are going to think he knows what he’s talking about. It puts the thought [of fraud] in their mind,” said Rebecca Vedrine, a Democrat who voted for Gillum and Nelson.

Others questioned state rules that tossed out several thousand ballots.

Katherine Grasshopper, a Democrat, said she tried to vote at her local precinct, in the town of Weston, but was told by an election official that her name wasn’t on the rolls. Grasshopper said she then cast a provisional ballot, but it was rejected.

“It’s infuriating and disheartening,” she said. “I’ve been a legal voter for 20 years. It shouldn’t be this hard.”

In recent days, Democrats have seized on the issue of mail-in and provisional ballots. Nelson and the Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging a state law that requires the signatures on the ballots to match existing signatures in state voter registration records.

In a ruling Thursday, a federal judge gave the state an additional two days to review ballots that were rejected for mismatching signatures and potentially add them back to the final vote count. District Court Judge Mark Walker wrote that 45 counties in Florida had rejected more than 4,000 ballots because of issues with their signatures. Walker said the number of rejected votes in the state’s other 22 counties was unclear.

But Walker did not strike down the state’s existing election law or order all of the mismatched signature ballots to be automatically recounted. Democrats had hoped for a broader ruling that would have put more votes in play.

Katherine Grasshopper, said she tried to vote at her local precinct, but was told by an election official that her name wasn’t on the rolls. Grasshopper said she then cast a provisional ballot, but it was rejected.
“I’ve been a legal voter for 20 years. It shouldn’t be this hard.” Photo by Scott McIntyre for PBS New Hour

Election law experts in Florida said even if Nelson wins a majority of the corrected mail-in and provisional ballots, he would still likely fall short of the votes needed to close the gap with Scott.

The Scott campaign appealed Walker’s decision Thursday shortly after it was announced. The case now shifts to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, setting up a legal battle that some expect could wind up at the Supreme Court, given the stakes for deciding election law in a key presidential-year swing state.

In a separate lawsuit the Nelson campaign has also asked the state to recount “undervotes,” a term for the ballots that included a vote for governor but left the Senate race blank. More than 20,000 undervotes were cast statewide in Florida in 2018, and an unusually high number were in Broward County, where a poorly designed ballot buried the Senate race in the bottom left corner, underneath a long list of instructions.

Under Florida state law, election officials cannot infer a voter’s choice in a race that was left blank on the ballot, said Daniel Smith, the chair of the department of political science at the University of Florida. If voters in Broward County simply missed the Senate race, those votes likely won’t get recounted, Smith said.

“I think it’s going to be a tough call for anyone to say do it over because of the ballot design,” said Smith, a leading elections law expert in the state.

Even if the state agreed to add some of the undervotes to the recount, Nelson would need to win them by an overwhelming margin to still have a shot. The hand recount will review roughly 42,000 undervotes and overvotes, ballots that contained either no vote or votes for multiple candidates in the race. And that total doesn’t yet include the ballots from Broward County.

Democrats have started conceding in private that Nelson will likely fall short, while calling in public for a full recount.

“Every legal vote should count. That’s our core message,” State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat, said in an interview.

Regardless of the eventual winner, Rodriguez said he worried about the recount’s long-term impact in Florida and around the country. Baseless claims of fraud are “incredibly dangerous,” he said. “It’s harmful for our democracy and it needs to stop.”

But it might be too late. There were signs that the recount is already starting to bleed into the next presidential election cycle. “We know what this is about,” a Republican activist said at a rally in front of the Broward County elections office. Democrats “want to rig the election in 2020, and we’re not going to let them.”