In Broward County, votes for U.S. Senate race lag behind other statewide contests

Why did 24,465 Broward voters appear to skip voting in the race between Bill Nelson and Rick Scott?
Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes MARSHA HALPER
Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes MARSHA HALPER
Published Nov. 8, 2018|Updated Nov. 8, 2018

As Florida's bitterly narrow race for U.S. Senate appears it will meet the threshold for a lengthy manual recount, all eyes in the state are turning — yet again — to Broward County.

Numbers being reported from one of the state's bluest bastions are raising questions about why so many fewer voters appeared to choose a candidate in the U.S. Senate race, Florida's most nationally prominent office on this year's ballot.

As of Thursday evening, 676,706 votes had been counted in Broward in the U.S. Senate race, according to the Broward Supervisor of Elections website, overwhelmingly for Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson over Republican Rick Scott. But nearly every other statewide office garnered more votes in Broward than the Senate race, particularly the contest for governor, with 24,763 more voters — 701,469 in all — weighing in.

Meanwhile, the supervisor's department is still counting both early and absentee votes — which have already been transmitted to the state by every other county in Florida save Palm Beach, which is still tallying absentee ballots.

Around noon Thursday, Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes could not say how many votes had yet to be counted.

"Whatever is back there we have to finish it today," she said, referring to a room next to the Broward Canvassing Board's meeting where workers were feeding ballots into machines. "I don't know if they're all in the room but I know they're all opened. Opening is a big task and getting them out of that envelope. But they're all opened, I do know that … we're finishing the count as we speak."

Snipes attributed the slow pace of vote-counting to the number of votes and the size of the ballot. She had no answers for why her office was reporting two different numbers for total ballots cast, with one figure showing 695,799 and another showing 716,268. Nor could she say why so many voters may have overlooked or skipped the U.S. Senate race.

"I have not had an opportunity to take a look at that," she said about the under-voting issue in the Senate race. "I heard that for the first time yesterday. I just came out of a conference call [with the state]."

Nelson lawyer Marc Elias said Thursday that the senator's campaign believed the vote gap was a machine or marking issue that would be resolved after machines were re-calibrated in a machine recount or in the event of a hand recount. Some had also speculated that the ballot layout from the oft-beleaguered Broward office might have contributed to the undervote for Senate, noting that the box to vote for Nelson or Scott landed on the lower half of the page below the ballot instructions in the first column, though Elias discounted that possibility.

Snipes, however, ruled out technical problems.

"There's no calibration issue. Those machines are brand new. They're not even a year old," she said, noting that two employees from the county vendor were at her Lauderhill headquarters to assist with the counting of votes.

But criticism was already arriving on her doorstep Thursday, as the other U.S. Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, took to Twitter to hammer Snipes for "a history of incompetence [and] of blatant violations of state [and] federal laws."

"Bay County was hit by a Cat 4 Hurricane just 4 weeks ago, yet managed to count votes & submit timely results," he wrote. "Yet over 41 hours after polls closed [the] Broward elections office is still counting votes?"

He also accused Democratic lawyers of trying to "steal" the two Senate and state Cabinet seats, prompting former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a primary rival of Gillum's, to fire back: "Instead of spewing false conspiracy theories, let our democracy work."

The Senate undervote was particularly pronounced in the fraction of southern Broward County that is part of Florida's 24th congressional district, Democratic political consultant Matthew Isbell noted Thursday on Twitter. That district was among those with an uncontested election for its U.S. House seat, he noted, meaning there would have been no additional congressional race that could have helped draw attention to the Senate box on the ballot.

The votes in Broward for the state Cabinet races also outnumbered the votes cast in the Senate race. About 13,800 more voters chose a candidate for attorney general, and about 8,700 more votes were cast for commissioner of agriculture.

The race for agriculture commissioner in particular may be Democrats' best chance to capture at least one statewide seat — Democrat Nikki Fried led Republican Matt Caldwell by a sliver of just 470 votes Thursday night. Caldwell had said he was optimistic about the narrow lead he had on election night and that he expects to be declared the winner after the manual recount, though Fried has sent out fund-raising emails referencing the recount and has called for volunteers to help ensure provisional ballots are counted.

Should the vote difference in the Nelson-Scott race remain below the .25 percent margin, the U.S. Senate race too would require a drawn-out recount process done by hand. As of Thursday evening, Scott was leading Nelson by only 17,431 votes — 0.22 percent.

Even the governor's race may require an automatic recount done by machine, after margins narrowed between Governor-elect Ron DeSantis and Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum to 38,594 votes, or .47 percent, Thursday night. The state requires an automatic recount if the vote difference is .50 percent or lower.

Florida's chief legal officer, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, told county election supervisors in a conference call to plan for as many as three statewide recounts Thursday morning.

"The recounts will be nationally watched," Detzner told counties, adding they are "under a microscope."

With Snipes' office still counting votes, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch stopped by her Lauderhill headquarters Thursday to see the process for himself. He said people should be patient.

"We know that Broward County is where the votes are. This is a big, large, urban county. There are lots of votes to count in this election. The reason we're here is because the outcome is so close, because it's razor thin," Deutch said. "Yes, sometimes it takes a little extra time to make sure we get the outcome the voters intended. That's what's happening here. Everybody should be patient and respect the outcome once the votes have been tallied."

Snipes said the state has told her office to prepare for up to three recounts. She said she expects the process to take place between Nov. 13 and Nov. 20.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.