Florida recounts begin as tensions escalate across state

Posted at 10:09 PM, Nov 10, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-11 00:09:27-05

(CNN) — The counting is over. Now, the recounting begins.

More than three days after the polls closed in Florida, the secretary of state announced on Saturday afternoon that the razor-thin races for governor, senator and agriculture commissioner will be reviewed in a series of recounts.

According to unofficial results filed by the counties, Republican Gov. Rick Scott leads incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by more than 12,500 votes, or about .15%. The spread in the governor’s race is larger, with Republican former Rep. Ron DeSantis ahead of Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by nearly 34,000 votes, for a lead of .41%. In the narrowest contest, Democratic agriculture commissioner candidate Nikki Fried’s advantage stands at 5,326 votes — just .06% — over Republican Matt Caldwell.

With the margins in all three contests at under .5%, the votes are now being recounted by machine. That process must be finished by 3 p.m. on Thursday. Races within .25% will then go to a hand recount of overvotes and undervotes. An overvote means a voter selected more than the allotted options on the ballot; an undervote means a vote selected fewer than the available choices or, in these races, none. The Senate race and the contest for agriculture commissioner both currently both fall within .25%.

Hours after the recount was formally set in motion, Gillum surprised supporters by withdrawing the concession he offered DeSantis on election night.

“I am replacing my words of concession with an uncompromised and unapologetic call we count every single vote,” he said at a news conference in Tallahassee. DeSantis in a subsequent video statement said he would continue on with his transition plans and called the initial results “clear and unambiguous.”

On the Senate side, Scott’s campaign welcomed the recount by calling on Nelson to opt out of it, which is his option under state law.

“It’s time for Senator Nelson to accept reality and spare the state of the Florida the time, expense and discord of a recount,” said Scott spokesman Chris Hartline.

Nelson, however, showed no signs of backing down.

“We believe when every legal ballot is counted, we’ll win this election,” he said in a statement.

During a call with reporters later in the day, Marc Elias, his top recount lawyer, predicted that Scott’s lead would shrink during the machine recount — along with the tabulation of overseas and military ballots — and then “evaporate entirely” after the more thorough hand review was completed.

While the politicians and lawyers jockeyed to shape the narrative and activists kicked off new protests this weekend, demonstrators pooled on the streets outside the Broward County Supervisor of Elections Office for a second straight day. Again, they targeted Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, chanting “lock her up” as she and others worked inside trying to finish the initial vote count before a noon deadline.

There were also more heated confrontations between protesters — many in “Make America Great Again” hats — and an increasing number of Democrats, most notably Gillum supporters, before and after the recount was formally called.

Scott had escalated already rising tensions across the state on Thursday night, when news conference he took a page from President Donald Trump and, without citing any evidence, accused “left-wing activists in Broward County” of trying to steal the election for Nelson. The county, in deep-blue portion of South Florida, is notoriously slow in counting its votes and as its tally mounted, Scott’s lead had predictably diminished. In a series of tweets on Friday, Trump picked up the thread and accused the Democrats of attempting “Election Theft in Broward and Palm Beach Counties.” After the official recount was announced on Saturday, Trump again tweeted, “Trying to STEAL two big elections in Florida! We are watching closely!”

Scott’s request for an investigation into election-related fraud did not go far.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said on Friday it was told by the Department of State, which is run by a Republican Scott-appointee, that they had received “no allegation of criminal activity.” On Saturday, the agency’s elections division told CNN that two internal observers had “seen no evidence of criminal activity.”

Still, Scott’s campaign issued an ominous-sounding statement “encouraging every Florida Sheriff to watch for any violations and take appropriate action.”

Meanwhile, the Nelson campaign is plowing ahead with a lawsuit against the state over its process for validating vote-by-mail ballots. Elias has argued that Florida’s signature-matching process put an undue onus on the “untrained opinions” of poll workers, which led to a “complete lack of uniformity” in how the ballots were being judged.

On Saturday, Elias told reporters he believed a decision in Nelson’s favor could “add thousands of additional ballots that have so far gone uncounted” to the equation.

“We have sought a statewide remedy because we believe that all voters — whether they voted for Sen. Nelson or for Gov. Scott — should not be disenfranchised because an election worker doesn’t believe that their signature in two different places are closely resembling,” he said.

There is a court hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has also injected himself into the fight, alleging on Thursday and Friday — like Scott and the President, with no proof — that there are “shenanigans going on in Broward and Palm Beach” before suggesting that a sinister cabal of liberals from Washington was at work trying to rig the election. In fact, out-of-state lawyers from both parties, including a handful who had significant roles 18 years ago, have been flocking to Florida ahead of the recount.

Leading a call for Scott’s campaign on Saturday, Graham touted Scott’s legal team and again skewered Broward and Palm Beach election officials for their lack of transparency.

“Rick has a good team of lawyers,” Graham said. “Lawyers are not going to decide this race, the voters will. I support every valid vote being counted. But I also support the rule of law when it comes to voting.”

Around the state on Friday, allegations and rumors of misplaced or lost votes fueled simmering anger and confusion as the campaigns, lawyers, operatives and freelance rabble-rousers girded themselves for a re-run of the pitched partisan combat that took over the state during the 2000 presidential recount.

Outside a mail distribution center in Miami-Dade County, a group of activists with images they said showed undelivered ballots inside tried and failed to get a meeting with a supervisor. Later in the day, a spokeswoman for the US Postal Service said it was “researching the matter to verify that all ballots have been handled in accordance to USPS service standards.”

The Postal Service did not immediately respond to a request for an update on Saturday. Elias confirmed Saturday that Nelson’s team was tracking concerns about the facility.

Detailed updates on the state of the race had been hard to come by ahead of Sunday’s noon reporting deadline, leading Scott to successfully sue top election officials in Broward and Palm Beach Counties for information on the total votes cast and how many of them had been canvassed.

In Broward, Brenda Snipes turned over information to Scott and his team for review late Friday. But before midnight, the campaign pushed out a new press release claiming Snipes had not fully complied with the court order “because she refuses to confirm whether or not additional ballots exist that must be counted.”

Adding to Broward County’s troubles, a CNN analysis of votes cast there suggests that ballot design could be responsible for a substantial difference in the number of votes cast between the race for governor and the race for senator in Florida.