Here’s what a recount in Florida would look like

No statewide recounts have been declared, but it looks like we're headed that way in the U.S. Senate race and the Agriculture Commissioner race.
Bill Nelson, left, and Rick Scott, right.
Bill Nelson, left, and Rick Scott, right.
Published Nov. 7, 2018|Updated Nov. 8, 2018

Recounts are the talk of Florida politics today, with the races for U.S. Senate and Florida Agriculture Commissioner — as well as a smattering of smaller races — all within a razor-thin margin.

Statewide results have to be reported to the state elections office before a recount can be ordered. Between provisional and other late ballots, it might be this weekend before results are in.

Here's how recounts in Florida work under state law:

  1. A race is within 0.5 percent margin.

    If a statewide race is decided by less than 0.5 percent, the Secretary of State — in this case case, Rick Scott appointee Ken Detzner — has to order a recount. (The word “shall” is in the statute.) The candidates who are shown to be losing can refuse the recount, but it doesn’t look like Bill Nelson or Nikki Fried, the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate and Agriculture Commissioner, respectively, are going to do so.
  2. Counties re-scan ballots.

    The bodies in charge of re-counting votes according to Florida law are called “canvassing boards,” and they’re comprised of the county supervisor of elections, a circuit court judge and the chair of the county commission.Once a recount is ordered, the canvassing board tests its voting machines to make sure there was no technical error. If such an error is found, the county has to report it to the Department of State within 11 days.If no error is detected, ballots are re-scanned to make sure there was no initial systematic counting error. (Damaged ballots are duplicated so they can be re-scanned.) Counties with electronic voting machines compare the number of total votes cast according to the machines with the total vote count that the county initially reported. If the numbers match up, the county assumes the vote was reported accurately.Under state law, these recount results have to be reported by 3 p.m. “on the 9th day after any general election.” In this case, the recount would be due at 3 p.m. Nov. 15.

  3. The second set of returns is reported to the state.

    If the recounted returns show the race to be outside of a 0.25 percent margin, the Secretary of State will likely certify the results as official. If the second margin falls within 0.25 percent, a manual recount is triggered. A manual recount is basically what it sounds like: county canvassing boards count by hand the votes that were either undercounted or over-counted according to the first recount. Duplicated ballots from the first recount are re-checked with their originals to make sure they’re accurate. If there are disputed or unclear ballots (hanging chads, anyone?) the canvassing board meets to determine how they should be counted.  This process can take days.

The last time a statewide recount was ordered in Florida, after the famously nutty 2000 presidential election, it was never actually completed. Just hours after the Florida Supreme Court ordered the recount, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended it. After hearing oral arguments from campaign lawyers for Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, the nation's highest court awarded Florida's electoral votes to Bush.

Barry Richard, who was the lead counsel for Bush then, said Florida's rules have changed since the 2000 debacle.

"The rules are a lot clearer now," Richard said.

But that doesn't mean the outcome in some key statewide races is clear today. It could be weeks before we know for sure who our next U.S. senator or agriculture commissioner is.

This story has been clarified to reflect which votes are counted in a potential second recount.