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.

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY DAVID SMI­LEY dsmi­[email protected]­ami­her­

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-


Fed­eral Judge Mark Walker


Rick Scott

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.

CHRIS­TIAN COLON [email protected]­

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.

Florida State Univer­sity Col­lege of Law

Fed­eral Judge Mark Walker.

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