How clear-cut midterms devolved into recount sequel
Florida’s 2018 midterms seemed all wrapped up on election night. Then late-developing votes in Broward and Palm Beach changed everything in the race between Bill Nelson and Rick Scott.
Pete Mitchell muted CNN at the Embassy Suites in downtown Orlando and trudged onto the stage overlooking a hushed ballroom, where the dour remnants of an audience gathered to celebrate Bill Nelson’s reelection to the U.S. Senate on Election Day now waited instead for some kind of solace or finality.
It was after midnight, and Nelson didn’t have much to say. But somebody had to say some- thing.
About 20 minutes earlier and 200 miles away in Naples, Gov. Rick Scott had declared victory, announcing his ascension to the U.S. Senate after leading the incumbent by more than 57,000 votes. On the other side of Orlando, Trump-endorsed Ron DeSantis was celebrating his own win in the race for governor after receiving a concession call from Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gil- lum.
“Thanks for your patience,” Mitchell, Nelson’s longtime campaign manager and chief of staff, told a smattering of reporters and supporters. “Based on numerous media reports, the Senate race has been called for Rick Scott. This is obviously not the result Senator Nelson’s campaign had worked so hard for.”
Mitchell said Nelson would have more to say in the morning, and despite his characterizations, the press was treating the race as too close to call. But the statement felt like the period on another declaration of Republican dominance in Florida, where the ruling party once again held on to the Governor’s Mansion and also appeared to topple Nelson, the last standing statewide elected Democrat. The results were tight, but that’s Florida. And in an election with more than 8 million ballots cast, Republicans had apparently eked out a clean
sweep of the state’s top two races and the entire cabinet.
“This campaign is behind us,” Scott said at his LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort victory party, where chants of “Senator Scott!” rang out. “That’s where we’re going to leave it.”
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
As election night faded into the morning after, hundreds of employees and volunteers were still running thousands of paper ballots through tabulation machines and counting votes in windowless warehouses in Lauderhill and Riviera Beach. Unbeknownst to the candidates, there were still more than 100,000 untabulated votes, including tens of thousands of late-arriving absentee ballots and uncounted early votes gumming up the works in heavily Democratic Broward and Palm Beach counties.
While everyone focused on the fact that Election Day votes had almost all been counted, a deluge of mail ballots and early votes was still working its way into the system. Controversial Broward elections chief Brenda Snipes — who on election night told reporters that “we’re not as slow as we used to be” after struggling to handle late-arriving absentee ballots during the primaries — was once again struggling to count late-arriving absentee ballots. And she’d stopped making regular reports to the state on her progress.
It was somewhere around 3:15 a.m. on Nov. 7 when thousands of new vote totals updated into the state’s system, according to Nelson’s campaign. The senator finally had something to say: “We are proceeding to a recount.”
What unfolded over the next 11 days was nothing short of organized chaos.
Droves of attorneys descended on Florida courtrooms and canvassing boards, thousands of volunteers gathered to handle ballots in latex gloves and dozens of protesters scrawled signs and set up camp outside elections headquarters. Machines and processes broke down. Ballots were lost. Deadlines were blown. And a federal judge declared Florida the “laughingstock of the world.”
Despite the victory speeches, savvy political observers never believed the Florida midterms were over. Back in Tallahassee, it was barely 9 p.m. on election night when Democratic consultant Steve Schale looked up from his tablet amid a rainstorm and told a New York Times reporter that it would be at least another 10 days before the U.S. Senate race could be called. In Miami Beach, agriculture commissioner candidate Nicole “Nikki” Fried gathered her team within the hour in her suite at the Fontainebleau to prepare for what looked like a looming manual recount against Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell, who declared victory that night while clinging to a lead of about half a point.
In Orlando, after leaving the stage, Nelson’s longtime chief of staff was surprised when his statement was treated by some as a concession. The campaign released a statement at 1:09 a.m. explaining that they were waiting for every vote to be counted. Within a few hours, they had retained the services of Marc Elias, general counsel for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and a recount veteran. To help pay the bills, the Florida Democratic Party sent out the word that they needed six figures in donations to get the recount team going.
Scott’s campaign responded by calling Nelson “desperate.” But they knew the recount was coming. Florida laws put into place after the disastrous 2000 presidential election require races within half a percentage point to endure a second tabulation of all the votes. And just like Nelson, Scott’s team was coordinating with attorneys and campaign staffers in order to make it through another two weeks. He’d raise $1.4 million over the following week to pay for the overtime resources.
Continued returns in Broward County were fueling the shrinking race margins. The morning after polls closed, Schale pointed out that Broward’s website seemed to point to 30,000 as yet untallied votes in Florida’s Democratic bastion. As that number shrank, so too did DeSantis’ lead, which unlike Scott’s had grown to the point that The Associated Press had called the race. By that evening, nearly 24 hours after he fell behind by 75,000 votes and more than a point, Gillum was on a conference call listening to his campaign staff discuss the fact that he’d probably conceded too quickly.
“This campaign has had no shortage of random stories, and of course it’s going to have a recount,” said a person familiar with the conversations. “It just felt like a fait accompli.”
By the morning of Nov. 8, it was clear to everyone that Florida was headed not just for one recount, but for three.
Congressman Matt Gaetz, a member of DeSantis’ transition team, got a call from Donald
Trump’s campaign manager telling him to head to Broward County, according to The Washington Post. Elias, Nelson’s newly hired attorney, jumped on a conference call with reporters and explained how he believed Nelson would pull out a victory.
In Broward and Palm Beach, thousands of ballots were still uncounted. At the same time, thousands more traditionally Democratic-leaning provisional ballots were unresolved. And the biggest key of all: about 30,000
“undervotes” in Broward County — a remarkable 4 percent of the vote. Elias believed voters had made a choice in the U.S. Senate race in those ballots, but a machine error had left them uncounted.
With Scott’s lead already down to only 22,000 votes, it suddenly wasn’t impossible that Nelson could actually win.
“That undervote doesn’t make any sense,” Elias said of the number of people skipping the first race on the ballot. “And it doesn’t make any sense that it’s a ballot design issue.”
As Elias spoke to reporters, Snipes and other elections supervisors were talking to Secretary of
State Ken Detzner, who oversees Florida’s elections. Detzner told them on his own conference call that Florida was headed for multiple statewide recounts. “The recounts will be nationally watched. … [We’re] under a microscope,” Detzner said.
Snipes emerged from the call to speak in a hallway with attorneys for the Democratic and Republican parties, who by this point were concerned about a dearth of information coming out of her office. Scott’s campaign was growing furious about her lack of response to their request for basic information.
How many votes were left to count? Snipes either couldn’t or wouldn’t say.
Shortly after, Snipes — who outside of Palm Beach County’s Susan Bucher was by this point the only elections supervisor still tallying mail-in ballots — ad-
WE HAVE BEEN THE LAUGHINGSTOCK OF THE WORLD, ELECTION AFTER ELECTION, AND WE CHOSE NOT TO FIX THIS.
Federal Judge Mark Walker
I WILL NOT SIT IDLY BY WHILE UNETHICAL LIBERALS TRY TO STEAL THIS ELECTION FROM THE GREAT PEOPLE OF FLORIDA.
dressed reporters. “Whatever is back there, we have to finish it today,” she said. A few minutes later, she updated her totals again. And suddenly Fried was ahead of Caldwell.
Having gone to sleep on election night facing a complete wipeout at the polls, Democrats were suddenly optimistic. Gillum released a statement explaining that he’d prematurely conceded and began a count-every-vote tour that would take him from churches in Fort Lauderdale back to Tallahassee. Democratic activists began hunting for voters with provisional ballots to convince them to fix any problems and get their votes counted.
Meanwhile, Republican patience was wearing thin. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican with whom Nelson had a warm relationship, began tweeting that Snipes’ “incompetence” had opened the door for Democratic attorneys to “steal” the election. Scott’s attorneys drafted two lawsuits, one against Snipes for refusing to turn over public information and another against Bucher for conducting activities in private, like duplicating damaged ballots, that by law are supposed to be conducted in the open.
Scott announced the lawsuits with an evening press conference in front of the Governor’s Mansion, during which he claimed there was “rampant voter fraud” in South Florida and requested an investigation by state police.
“We’ve all seen the incompetence and irregularities in vote tabulations in Broward and Palm Beach for years. Well, here we go again,” said Scott, who fielded no questions and immediately went on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox. “I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the great people of Florida.”
Scott had kicked a beehive.
Within minutes, President Donald Trump was tweeting about voter fraud, and Republican campaigns were organizing protests outside the offices of
Snipes and Bucher. By Friday morning, Nov. 9, Congressman Gaetz was outside Snipes’ office, where he rallied dozens of protesters in MAGA hats. They so unnerved Snipes’ office that her staff called Lauderhill police to search members of the public with metal detector wands before allowing them to enter the building. In Palm Beach, when a crush of news cameras descended upon Bucher’s office, she accused them of violating state laws banning the photography of ballot signatures and threatened them with arrest.
As tensions rose, Scott was ripped for undermining the very elections he was tasked as governor with overseeing. His own elections departments and law enforcement arm said they had no credible allegations of fraud. But in court, Scott scored victories, with judges ordering Snipes and Bucher to turn over public information, provide more transparency and follow state election laws. Bucher said she wouldn’t be able to meet the court’s deadline to turn over thousands of duplicate ballots made in private to replace damaged votes.
The lawsuits — a new front on the extended campaign trail — were the first of many. Caldwell, the Republican agriculture commissioner candidate, sued Snipes, seeking a declaration that she not count mail-in ballots received after 7 p.m. on election night. At the same time, Nelson’s campaign was suing Detzner in federal court over rules that resulted in the rejection of thousands of absentee and provisional ballots due to mismatched signatures, hoping to push back a Saturday deadline for the first set of unofficial results from elections supervisors.
Nelson’s extension request was shot down, and the Nov. 10 noon deadline to submit unofficial elections results passed showing DeSantis with a strong 33,000-vote lead over Gillum and Scott clinging to a more precarious 12,500-vote advantage. Within half an hour, Detzner, the secretary of state, called for a mandatory statewide recount in the three races, launching efforts around the state to pore over 8.3 million ballots in just five days.
By the time Detzner gave his order, the political war over Florida’s recount was on, giving Floridians déjà vu. Democrats were accusing Republicans of voter suppression, pointing to scores of ballots discovered in an Opa-locka mail distribution center and thousands more rejected over the state’s questionable voter signature laws. Gillum officially revoked his concession while DeSantis claimed victory (again). Meanwhile, Republicans from Donald Trump down to local activists warned of voter fraud. Pictures of elections boxes left behind at voter precincts and box trucks arriving at Snipes’ office at night went viral on social media.
Broward election planning director Joseph D’Alessandro works on the recounting of votes on Nov. 13 at the Broward supervisor of elections office in Lauderhill.
Brenda Snipes, the Broward County supervisor of elections, examines a ballot in Lauderhill on Nov. 9. Snipes turned in a letter of resignation on Nov. 18.
Ann Scott, left, looks up at her husband, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, as he makes a victory speech.
Federal Judge Mark Walker.