Bill Nelson’s moonshot: Can a recount find 30,000 votes to keep his Senate seat from going to Rick Scott?

Just 0.38 percent of the 8.1 million ballots cast by Floridians separates the senate candidates. Still, it's a lot of votes to find.
Rick Scott and Bill Nelson (Associated Press photos)
Rick Scott and Bill Nelson (Associated Press photos)
Published Nov. 7, 2018|Updated Nov. 8, 2018

Nothing comes easy in Florida elections.

The tightest U.S. Senate race since at least the 1970s was too close to call on election night and now appears headed for a recount.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott was clinging to a 30,175-vote advantage over Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson as of Wednesday evening — or just 0.38 percent of the 8.1 million ballots cast by Floridians.

State law allows for a machine recount of the results if the two candidates are separated by one-half of a percentage point or less. The race is well within that margin.

The election for Florida Agriculture Commissioner is likely going to a recount, too, with 12,400 votes separating the leader, Republican Matt Caldwell, and Democrat Nikki Fried.

The trailing candidate can refuse the right to a recount, but Nelson made clear Wednesday he does not intend to.

"We are proceeding to a recount," Nelson said in his only public remarks since results started coming in Tuesday.

Scott spokesman Chris Hartline said by moving ahead with the recount, Nelson was "desperately trying to hold on to something that no longer exists."

"It's a sad way for Bill Nelson to end his career," Hartline said.

Florida is no stranger to contentious recounts. To this day, the repercussions of the infamous Bush-Gore fight in 2000 and the ensuing recount reverberate nearly every Florida Election Day.

A recount can be a highly political event run by partisan county election supervisors and canvassing boards filled with party operatives. They often fight over minor ballot discrepancies and seemingly benign markings.

The jockeying was well underway Wednesday with representatives from both campaigns apparently trying to extract names of people who cast provisional ballots from local election offices.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said people working with the campaigns were waiting for him when he arrived at his warehouse this morning requesting the information. He heard Scott and Nelson officials were making similar demands to supervisors around the state.

The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections confirmed similar requests from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Nelson campaign, according to a spokeswoman.

"I will not give it," Corley said, citing the right to a secret ballot. "The voter comes first not the campaigns."

Nelson sent out a fundraising email Wednesday morning asking for donations for an "emergency response recount fund" to staff all 67 counties with observers.

"We expect the supervisors, regardless of their party affiliation, will discharge their constitutional duties," said Marc Elias, a veteran election lawyer representing the Nelson campaign.

By law, Secretary of State Ken Detzner — an appointee of Scott — must initiate the recount if the race is within a half-percentage point.

The earliest a recount could begin is Saturday after all 67 counties have counted any provisional ballots and certified the results of the election. If a machine recount ends with the two candidates separated by one-quarter of a percentage point or less, then a manual recount would take place.

The Agriculture Commissioner candidates, just 0.16 percent between them, already seems poised for a count-by-hand. The Senate race has a long way to get there.

Scott claimed victory in a speech just before midnight Tuesday, though no news networks had declared him the winner. As of Wednesday, the Associated Press still had not called the race.

Over the 24 hours since announcing his triumph, Scott's lead shrank from about 60,000 votes — outside the recall margin — to half that.
Still, that's a large gap for Nelson to overcome and it's not clear where he'll find the votes to close it.

His campaign pointed to a New York Times analysis that estimated 113,000 uncounted ballots in Florida, the vast majority in the Democratic strongholds of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

However, that analysis relied on voter models that estimated turnout and was not based on outstanding ballot data from local county election offices.
Voter-rich Broward County was still counting votes as of Wednesday.

"I can't give you an exact number. I'm not sure. I'm really not sure," Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

More money was spent on Florida's U.S. Senate seat than any other in the country, save Texas. Scott and Nelson have run neck-and-neck in the polls for months.

A Scott victory would pad the GOP's advantage in the upper chamber and add another vote for President Donald Trump's agenda. If Nelson reverses the outcome, it would be a huge boost to Florida Democrats after a disappointing mid-term election cycle.

Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report.