Slow counts and con­spir­acy the­o­ries

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - Front Page - BY AN­THONY MAN, LARRY BARSZEWSKI AND SKYLER SWISHER

Florida’s midterm elec­tions were con­sumed by tur­moil on Thurs­day as un­counted votes cast doubt over the re­sults in three big con­tests: gover­nor, U.S. Se­nate and agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner.

The eyes of the state, and na­tion, were on Broward County — where thou­sands of bal­lots were still be­ing counted two days af­ter Elec­tion Day.

Repub­li­cans re­acted fu­ri­ously, of­fer­ing con­spir­acy the­o­ries about Democrats and their lawyers plot­ting to steal elec­tions. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump weighed in Thurs­day night, writ­ing on Twit­ter about “an­other big cor­rup­tion scan­dal hav­ing to do with Elec­tion Fraud in #Broward and Palm Beach.”

Democrats mocked the GOP out­rage, won­der­ing why Repub­li­cans feared the care­ful count­ing of all votes.

De­spite Repub­li­can com­plaints about Demo­cratic lawyers, it was Repub­li­can Rick Scott whose Se­nate cam­paign filed a law­suit late Thurs­day in Broward County Cir­cuit against the county’s elec­tions su­per­vi­sor Brenda Snipes.

The law­suit said she is with­hold­ing too much in­for­ma­tion, and de­manded she re­veal how

many bal­lots were left to count. “The lack of trans­parency raises sub­stan­tial con­cerns about the va­lid­ity of the elec­tion process,” Scott’s law­suit claimed.

Nel­son’s spokesman said Scott’s ac­tion “ap­pears to be po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated and borne out of des­per­a­tion.”

Snipes de­clined to com­ment about the law­suit Thurs­day night. How­ever, she said that vir­tu­ally all the bal­lots were counted by early in the evening.

With ac­cu­sa­tions fly­ing, no one knows for sure who will emerge as the win­ner of statewide elec­tions — or when.

The lat­est tally in the gover­nor’s race had Repub­li­can Ron DeSan­tis and Demo­crat An­drew Gil­lum sep­a­rated by just 36,235 votes of more than 8.2 mil­lion votes cast. DeSan­tis had 49.61 per­cent; Gil­lum had 49.17 per­cent.

In the U.S. Se­nate race, Repub­li­can Rick Scott and Demo­cratic Bill Nel­son were sep­a­rated by just 1,597 votes of 8.2 mil­lion cast. Scott, cur­rently the gover­nor, had 50.09 per­cent to in­cum­bent Nel­son’s 49.91 per­cent.

And in the race for state agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner, Nikki Fried of Fort Laud­erdale was run­ning ahead of Repub­li­can Matt Cald­well by an in­finites­i­mally small num­ber of votes: 2,896 out of more than 8 mil­lion cast statewide. Fried had 50.02 per­cent to Cald­well’s 49.98 per­cent.

Thurs­day’s fo­cus was on Broward County, where streams of elected of­fi­cials and lawyers swooped in and out of the Su­per­vi­sor of Elec­tions Voter Equip­ment Cen­ter in Lauder­hill. That was where the three-mem­ber elec­tions Can­vass­ing Board was over­see­ing count­ing, long af­ter al­most ev­ery other county in the state had all their bal­lots counted.

Among the ques­tions: -- Why did nearly 25,000 peo­ple voted for gover­nor but not for U.S. Se­nate in Broward? A com­mon the­ory was that be­cause of the way the Broward bal­lot was de­signed, with the Se­nate race in the left-hand col­umn be­low the in­struc­tions, some vot­ers missed the con­test.

-- Why was the vote count­ing go­ing so slowly? When count­ing re­sumed Thurs­day, tens of thou­sands of bal­lots re­mained to be pro­cessed, long af­ter other coun­ties had ev­ery­thing counted and re­sults re­ported to the state. Broward elec­tions chief Snipes blamed the vol­ume of mail-in bal­lots, many of which were re­ceived just be­fore the 7 p.m. dead­line on Tues­day.

Thurs­day evening, Snipes said some bal­lots still re­main to be con­sid­ered by the three-mem­ber elec­tions Can­vass­ing Board. The board was

meet­ing into the night Thurs­day.

In Palm Beach County, Su­per­vi­sor of Elec­tions Su­san Bucher said the bulk of count­ing is done. About 50 mail-in bal­lots will go to the Palm Beach County elec­tions Can­vass­ing Board on Fri­day, some write-in votes re­mained to be counted, and about 60 un­der votes would go to the Can­vass­ing Board to try to de­ter­mine vot­ers’ in­tent.

State law re­quires re­counts if the races are closer than 0.5 per­cent, which means the con­tin­ued un­cer­tainty is cer­tain. Af­ter the ini­tial re­count by ma­chine, if there is less than 0.25 per­cent dif­fer­ence, bal­lots that couldn’t be ac­cu­rately read by ma­chine are counted by hand.

On Elec­tion Night, Repub­li­cans were seen as the win­ners. In the gover­nor’s race, Gil­lum con­ceded, some­thing that is sym­bolic but not legally bind­ing.

DeSan­tis, the Repub­li­can seen as the vic­tor, said Thurs­day dur­ing a stop in Hialeah Gar­dens that he was work­ing on his tran­si­tion to the gover­nor’s of­fice. “We’ll let the lawyers do what they got to do, but we’ll be good. I am look­ing for­ward to serv­ing.”

But Democrats sought to change the nar­ra­tive.

Ter­rie Rizzo, chair­woman of the Florida Demo­cratic Party de­clared Fried the win­ner over Cald­well.

“In spite of the fact that we are a lit­tle bit down in the num­bers, we are hope­ful that ev­ery sin­gle vote will be counted in this race.

That way all of us can walk away feel­ing ex­tremely con­fi­dent about what each and ev­ery one of us did to go out here and have our say in this elec­tion,” Gil­lum said in a video posted on his Face­book page.

The Demo­crat’s last four words were the slo­gan he used through­out his cam­paign: “Let’s count ev­ery sin­gle vote, and let’s bring it home.”

Nel­son said on Twit­ter that “Ev­ery vote must be counted — and, counted ac­cu­rately.” A Nel­son at­tor­ney said the cam­paign was ready to file law­suits.

U.S. Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., is­sued a string of tweets crit­i­cal of Snipes’s op­er­a­tion and her re­fusal to say when ev­ery­thing would be fin­ished. Snipes said she wasn’t in the busi­ness of “guessti­mat­ing.”

At­tor­ney Marc Elias, a high-pro­file na­tional elec­tion lawyer rep­re­sent­ing Nel­son, said it’s un­usual that more peo­ple would vote in races for at­tor­ney gen­eral and chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer than for the U.S. Se­nate race.

He doesn’t think bal­lot de­sign was the is­sue, and a re­count could re­veal prob­lems in Broward that could af­fect the re­sults.

Ev­ery­thing that hap­pens at the can­vass­ing boards is un­der scru­tiny, some­thing that will spread through­out the state once, as ap­pears likely, full-scale re­counts are or­dered. The League of Women Vot­ers of Florida said Thurs­day it has mem­bers mon­i­tor­ing elec­tions can­vass­ing boards “to pro­mote trans­parency and

help keep cit­i­zens in­formed of the progress and process.”

On Thurs­day evening, tem­pers flared when Broward’s Can­vass­ing Board be­gan con­sid­er­ing pro­vi­sional bal­lots cast by vot­ers who were not listed as el­i­gi­ble to vote.

The elec­tions of­fice found 205 of the more than 600 were in fact el­i­gi­ble. Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic rep­re­sen­ta­tives started ar­gu­ing about how to han­dle them.

Democrats and groups that sup­port the party’s can­di­dates scram­bled through­out the day to get peo­ple who cast pro­vi­sional bal­lots on Tues­day to act to make sure their bal­lots would be counted by the 5 p.m. dead­line. Demo­cratic Party of­fices in Fort Laud­erdale, Mi­ra­mar and Plan­ta­tion were used as war rooms where vol­un­teers at­tempted to track down peo­ple who voted pro­vi­sion­ally.

Pro­vi­sional bal­lots are given to vot­ers whose el­i­gi­bil­ity can­not be de­ter­mined at the polls, such as some­one who might not have proper iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Bucher said a crew would re­search pro­vi­sional bal­lots overnight Thurs­day and they would go to the Can­vass­ing Board on Fri­day.

One of the quirks in this year’s elec­tion was nearly 25,000 peo­ple voted for a gover­nor can­di­date but didn’t vote for a Se­nate can­di­date, ac­cord­ing to county re­sults Thurs­day morn­ing.

More than 707,021 peo­ple

voted for gover­nor in Broward in Tues­day’s elec­tion, while more than 682,073 vot­ers cast bal­lots for Se­nate, pre­lim­i­nary county elec­tion re­sults showed.

More peo­ple in Broward voted for the state’s com­mis­sioner of agri­cul­ture, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer and at­tor­ney gen­eral po­si­tions than they did for the Se­nate, ac­cord­ing to the pre­lim­i­nary county re­sults.

The sud­den fo­cus on re­counts brought back mem­o­ries for many of the in­fa­mous 2000 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion be­tween Ge­orge W. Bush and Al Gore that ended af­ter bal­lot count­ing court bat­tles.

“Wel­come to re­count mania,” said Mitch Ceasar, who was chair­man of the Broward Demo­cratic Party in 2000.

As vote count­ing con­tin­ued Thurs­day one of the lawyers Repub­li­cans sent to the Broward Su­per­vi­sor of Elec­tions Of­fice was Bill Scherer. The Fort Laud­erdale lawyer was in­volved in the Bush v. Gore case.

A Demo­cratic lawyer at the elec­tions of­fice, Broward state Sen. Gary Farmer, was over­head jok­ing on the phone: “They ac­tu­ally just found some Al Gore votes.”

CARLINE JEAN/SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SEN­TINEL

Can­vass­ing Board Mem­bers, Judge Betsy Ben­son,left, and Judge Deb­o­rah Car­pen­ter-Toye look over sig­na­tures on bal­lots at the Broward County Su­per­vi­sor of Elec­tions.

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