TALLAHASSEE –– Election officials, campaign operatives and lawyers across Florida are gearing up for massive recounts in large part due to a familiar problem: Broward County, which has been saddled with election controversies ever since the disputed 2000 presidential race.
All eyes are on that problematic South Florida county – Florida’s second largest and one of its most Democratic – as it lags nearly every other in the state in reporting ballot tallies. The county’s results could help decide the races for U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner, which are headed for recounts.
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The pressure is especially intense because the outcomes of the battles between Sen. Bill Nelson and Gov. Rick Scott for Senate and Rep. Ron DeSantis and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum for governor could have big implications for President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection bid. Governors in particular play a crucial role in raising money and marshaling resources ahead of presidential elections.
On Wednesday alone, 22,000 new Broward votes were tallied, narrowing the margins further in Democrats’ favor in the races. And, thanks to Broward, the gubernatorial race on Thursday afternoon hit the threshold for a recount and Democrat Nikki Fried took the lead over Rep. Matt Caldwell in the agriculture commissioner race by a mere 583 votes.
With so much riding on the nation’s largest swing state – a U.S. Senate seat, a Florida Cabinet seat and perhaps a gubernatorial recount — Broward’s supervisor of elections, Brenda Snipes, won’t or can’t say how many ballots there are left to count.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, issued a string of tweets Thursday that detailed the numerous controversies that have embroiled Snipes’ office over the years and, without evidence, suggested that Democrats want to manipulate the vote results.
“Now democrat lawyers are descending on #Florida. They have been very clear they aren’t here to make sure every vote is counted. – They are here to change the results of election; & – #Broward is where they plan to do it,” he said on Twitter.
“A U.S. Senate seat & a statewide cabinet officer are now potentially in the hands of an elections supervisor with a history of incompetence & of blatant violations of state & federal laws,” he wrote, adding that Snipes “has opened the door for lawyers to come here & try to steal a seat in the U.S. Senate & Florida Cabinet.”
Lawyers from both political parties and the campaigns of Scott, Nelson and agriculture commissioner candidates Caldwell and Fried are already being drafted for the recount fight, and Broward is looking like ground zero for that battle.
Marc Elias, the lawyer leading Nelson’s recount effort, said he had no idea how many ballots were left to be counted in Broward.
“I think you would have to ask them [Broward County,” Elias said. “I don’t know. They are still counting in Broward County.”
Another problem with Broward: about 24,000 more people voted for governor than for U.S. Senate – even though the Senate race was at the top of the ballot and top-of-the-ballot races usually rack up the most votes. More Broward voters cast ballots in the state’s agriculture commissioner, chief financial officer and attorney general races as well – a phenomenon seen in none of the other 66 counties.
Elections experts suspect that poor ballot design may have contributed to Broward undervoting the Senate race in such large numbers.
Elias, however, said Nelson isn’t challenging ballot design. Instead, he said Nelson’s team believes that the optical-scan machines didn’t pick up poorly marked ballots. If the ballots are re-scanned, Elias believes the chances of the votes being recorded increases.
In a Thursday morning conference call, Elias told reporters that because the problems are focused largely on Broward County, and to some extent Palm Beach County – both Democratic strongholds – Nelson will continue to eat into Scott’s lead, and it will be a “jump ball” as far as who is winning when the recount officially begins on Saturday.
One reason Broward is still uploading ballots is due to its sheer size. It has about 1.2 million registered voters and received 16,855 vote-by-mail absentee ballots on Election Day, 7,600 of them the day before and had to handle a crush of voters. Before the absentee ballots can be tallied, Florida law ensures that Florida elections officials in each county review voter signatures on the ballots to make sure they match a signature on file.
“You want to make sure these ballots are legitimate so there’s no voter fraud. It takes time,” said Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who estimated that 125,000 absentee ballots were received statewide on Election Day alone.
In Broward, 52 percent of the ballots were cast by Democrats, Smith said.
Still, the largest county in Florida, Miami-Dade, finished all of its uploading and tallying of absentee ballots on Wednesday, according to a spokeswoman for the local elections office. All counties are now reviewing provisional ballots, cast when a voter’s eligibility is in dispute. The deadline for voters to prove their provisional ballot should count is at 5 p.m. Thursday.
Though there are no concrete figures regarding ballots left to be counted statewide, there are some clues that indicate tens-of-thousands could be left.
In Broward County, for instance, in the state agriculture commissioner race, which is the second statewide race already under recount, there are 23,000 vote-by-mail ballots reported to the state versus those counted. In that race, Fried pulled ahead of Caldwell Thursday afternoon after trailing him by only 4,094 votes hours before, which means it’s within the state’s 0.25 percentage point margin to force a hand recount.
So far, the U.S. Senate is headed for a machine recount, which is triggered when the margin in a race hits 0.5 percentage points. On Thursday, the gubernatorial race fell just below the threshold when the margin hit 0.47 points.
The races are tightening as Broward loads in more and more votes, putting the county in the spotlight and the crosshairs of Republicans.
“If the office doesn’t know how many ballots there are left to count, then it raises serious questions about the integrity of the entire process,” said Leonard Collins, an attorney who successfully sued Snipes’ office for its unlawful destruction of ballot that candidate Tim Canova wanted to review after his unsuccessful 2016 Democratic primary against U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
“There should at least be an inventory of the ballots left to be counted and it should be public. But there’s not any of this,” Collins said, declining to comment on whether he is among the groups of elections lawyers who will be drafted into what’s likely to be a looming court battle.
Broward’s office has periodically been bedeviled by controversies and mishaps since the 2000 presidential elections, where thousands of punch-card ballots were being reviewed before the recount was shut down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A photo of a man using a magnifying class to examine voter intent on a Broward County punch-card ballot became the iconic picture commemorating the fiasco.
In 2003, after the office mismanaged the 2002 Democratic primary for governor, Snipes’ predecessor, Miriam Oliphant, was removed from office a by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed Snipes. She was subsequently reelected.
Before the 2016 elections, Snipes’ office mistakenly sent out some absentee ballots to voters that failed to list a popular medical marijuana measure that ultimately passed by wide margins, but not before the office was sued by the Florida chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. In another case during the election, the office mailed out about 1,700 ballots that had the word “no” in Creole where it should have said “wi” for “yes.”
Right before the 2016 elections, the Republican Party of Florida threatened to sue Snipes for the way in which her office handled the opening of absentee ballots. The controversy initially went away, but the party then sued to ensure her office followed the law on handling the ballots. It ultimately prevailed in court.
Snipes was hauled into court in a federal lawsuit over the way her office removes ineligible voters from the rolls, but she prevailed. However, she did lose yet another suit that was filed in the Wasserman Schultz race over the destruction of ballots after the election.
Florida’s elections division announced it would monitor her office heading into the election.
In talking to reporters, Nelson’s lawyer, Elias, stopped short of criticizing Snipes and instead focused on the recount ahead.
Elias said he is not sure if Nelson will be ahead of Scott, but he predicts things will tighten further before the process officially beings. He has been the lead attorney on dozens of post-election disputes and told reporters sometimes he tells clients that the race might be close, but they still likely will not win.
“That is not the conversation I’ve had with Sen. Nelson,” Elias said, expressing his confidence in a forthcoming Nelson victory.
At this point, Elias said the campaign thinks there was a large undervote in Broward County, or voters casting ballots that indicated they voted in other races but not the Senate race. As evidence, he points to the fact that nearly 14,000 more people in Broward County voted in the attorney general’s race than U.S. Senate race. The U.S. Senate race was a much more high-profile race, with candidates known statewide and tons more advertising, which makes fewer people voting in that race notable.
“That, frankly, is not plausible,” Elias said.