As the presidential race fades away, Florida still waits to call it

Absentee and provisional votes are slowing Florida's counting.
Published November 8 2012
Updated November 9 2012

The victory and concession speeches have been given. President Barack Obama has moved on to planning his second term. The national media have begun the 2016 presidential chatter.

And yet, there Florida was Thursday, still officially "too close to call" in this year's presidential race, stranded in an electoral purgatory that painted it white or yellow on a map where the 49 other states were red or blue.

Unlike 2000, Florida's results won't matter in deciding the outcome. And with the majority of the delinquent ballots coming from Democratic-heavy counties and Obama already holding a more than 58,000-vote lead, even the Mitt Romney campaign acknowledged defeat was imminent on Thursday.

So what's the hold up in sliding Florida's 29 electoral votes to Obama's tally of 303 once and for all?

In this case, it's not really the state's fault. The government doesn't "call" elections, media outlets do.

The state only reports results. An official winner of the race won't be declared until Saturday, at noon, when preliminary results are due from the 67 counties. Final results are to be certified Nov. 20.

If those final results fall within half of a percentage point, the state would order a machine recount.

That's possible in this case, but unlikely, considering that Obama leads Romney 49.9 percent to 49.2 percent — about 9,000 votes above the recount threshold. Also, Romney's campaign could waive a recount, and it sounded as if it might based on a statement released Thursday.

"The numbers in Florida show this was winnable," said Brett Doster, Florida adviser for Romney. "We thought based on our polling and range of organization that we had done what we needed to win. Obviously, we didn't, and for that I and every other operative in Florida has a sick feeling that we left something on the table. I can assure you this won't happen again."

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, seemed confident that it would officially win Florida.

"We feel we will be the official winner in Florida later today," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said.

The holdup is the combination of Obama's narrow lead with a larger than normal influx of absentee and provisional votes that were still being counted. In other words, it was possible — though unlikely — that the number of uncounted votes could be high enough to overcome Obama's 58,070-vote advantage.

"Our policy is we don't call a state if there's a reasonable chance for there to be a recount," said Jim Baltzelle, the Florida chief of bureau for the Associated Press. "It could still drop below the threshold that triggers a machine recount."

At the start of Thursday, 23 county canvassing boards were still meeting to review absentee or provisional ballots. By noon Thursday, Miami-Dade elections workers finished counting a final batch of 500 absentees after working all night. About 54,000 absentees cast up until the closing of the polls caused the delay in tabulating the Miami-Dade count.

Broward, Duval and Palm Beach were the last counties counting absentee ballots. Palm Beach, which had 30,000 votes yet to tally, struggled throughout the election season with its mail ballots. Last month, it had to duplicate thousands of absentee ballots after they couldn't be scanned because of a design flaw. Other residents complained about getting their absentee ballots late, some of which was caused by a bad postal bar code.

Still, Obama won that county with 58 percent of the vote, meaning it's unlikely Romney could make significant gains there.

Broward had about 15,000 absentee ballots outstanding. But again, the county went overwhelmingly for Obama.

Only Duval, which had about 3,600 ballots to be counted, was expected to pick up votes for Romney.

Duval Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland said the slow progress on absentees was out of caution.

The vast majority of the absentee ballots getting counted Thursday were filled out in person on Election Day.

He said counting the ballots would take about 30 minutes, but verifying them to make sure those who filled them out hadn't already voted was taking the extra time.

"To do it accurately, you have to check everything," Holland said. "It takes much longer to verify."

Such care might seem pointless in a presidential race that's already decided, but it could mean the difference in close local elections. For instance, only 43 votes separated the two candidates in the race for Jacksonville Beach mayor.

Another reason for the delay is that canvassing boards were still reviewing provisional ballots, which are cast by voters whose status is in doubt and require more work to verify. Hillsborough County's board was meeting Thursday night to review 2,500 ballots. Duval County had about 4,500 still to review.

These ballots couldn't be reviewed until voters had time to verify their information. State law gave them until 5 p.m. Thursday.

Florida had 35,884 provisional ballots in 2008, of which 18,630 were counted, or about half. Department of State spokesman Chris Cate said he doesn't know how many of the provisional ballots are being examined this year, but he expects more. Part of the reason: A law passed in 2011 requires voters to fill out a provisional ballot if they moved to another county before Election Day without updating their registration address.

But even if there are more provisional ballots this year, and even if they all were counted, it's extremely unlikely they would all break for Romney.

Florida will likely be colored in blue, and Democrats across the state Thursday were celebrating just that.

But, officially, the party has to wait.

Miami Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Curtis Morgan, Jay Weaver and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected]