Florida election officials on Thursday ordered a hand recount of ballots in the tight race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and his Republican challenger, outgoing governor Rick Scott.
Nelson trailed Scott by about 12,600 votes, or 0.15 per cent of the more than eight million ballots cast following an electronic recount.
Under state law, the Florida Department of State must trigger a manual recount if an electronic recount of ballots finds a margin of victory of less than 0.25 per cent in the race.
Elections officials were expected to inspect by hand any ballots that were designated undervotes or overvotes, cases where the machine that reviewed the ballot concluded that a voter had skipped a contest or marked more than one selection.
If the voter’s intentions are clear on review by a person, the ballot could be counted.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, in Tallahassee, slammed state election officials Thursday for repeatedly failing to anticipate election problems and 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 in court.
Election after election… we chose not to fix this.– U.S. District Judge Mark Walker
The recount of close races and attendant legal disputes over the validity of votes have stirred memories of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped an ongoing recount in the state and sent George W. Bush to the White House.
In the current dispute, the overarching problem was created by Florida’s 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 rejected a request to extend the 3 p.m. ET deadline for the state’s 67 counties to submit the results of the machine recount.
Palm Beach County missed the deadline after officials said the machines they were using to recount ballots overheated earlier in the week. That caused mismatched results with the recount of 174,000 early voting ballots, forcing staffers to go back and redo their work.
The county’s Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said the machines underwent maintenance right before the election, but “I don’t think they were designed to work 24/7.”
In his ruling Thursday, Walker also cleared the way for up to 4,000 rejected ballots to be included in the count, giving voters until 5 p.m. Saturday to show a valid identification and fix their ballots.
State officials testified that nearly 4,000 mailed-in ballots were set aside because local officials decided the signature on the envelope did not match the signature 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.
‘Every lawful vote’
The election will not be certified until Tuesday.
The machine recount did essentially bring a conclusion to the governor’s race betwen Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum. Unofficial results posted on the Florida secretary of state’s website showed that DeSantis is virtually assured of winning, with Gillum falling short of the votes to force a manual recount.
Nelson, a three-time incumbent, has defended his legal strategy that resulted in Walker’s ruling, saying in a statement Wednesday that his goal was to “to make sure that every lawful vote be counted correctly in this Senate race, and that Floridians’ right to participate in this process is protected.”
Republicans said in their own lawsuits and motions that Democrats are trying to change the rules after the voting did not go their way.
“We will continue to fight to defend Florida law and uphold the will of the voters,” said Chris Hartline, a spokesperson for Scott.
Nelson and Democrats had wanted Walker to order the counting of all mail-in ballots rejected for a mismatched signature, arguing that local election officials are not handwriting experts.
Walker said he could not go along with that suggestion.
“Let this court be clear: It is not ordering county canvassing boards to count every mismatched vote, sight unseen,” Walker wrote in his 34-page ruling.
Lauren Schenone, a spokesperson for Scott, called Walker’s ruling “baseless” and said they were “confident” it would be overturned by the Atlanta-based appellate court.
Scott attended an orientation session for new members of Congress on Wednesday despite the uncertainty.
The developments are fuelling frustrations among Democrats and Republicans alike. Democrats want state officials to do whatever it takes to make sure every eligible vote is counted. Republicans, including President Donald Trump and the other Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have argued without evidence that voter fraud threatens to steal races from the GOP.