Recount, recount, recount: Here’s where Florida is headed

With three statewide recounts ahead, even for Florida, home to the most notorious recount in modern history, this election is heading toward an unprecedented conclusion.
Volunteers at the Democratic office on Sistrunk Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., are calling and texting voters who cast provisional ballots Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS)  1245048
Volunteers at the Democratic office on Sistrunk Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., are calling and texting voters who cast provisional ballots Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS) 1245048
Published Nov. 9, 2018|Updated Nov. 9, 2018

Two days after Florida's election, a U.S. Senate seat remains in limbo, the governor's race moved to within recount range and the Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner assumed a narrow lead.

Welcome to recount-ageddon.

Even for Florida, home to the most notorious recount in modern history, this election is heading toward an unprecedented conclusion. Three statewide races and three statehouse races appear headed to a recount.

From here on out, Florida is in uncharted territory.

In two South Florida counties, results continued to trickle in the Democrats' favor as workers made their way through thousands of uncounted ballots. Gov. Rick Scott announced in a Thursday evening press conference that he, as a candidate, is suing Broward and Palm Beach counties for what he said is a lack of transparency.

By mid-Thursday, for the first time since Tuesday night, Democrat Andrew Gillum inched close enough to Republican Ron DeSantis to force an automatic recount in the governor's race. As of Thursday evening, just 36,219 votes separated the two in a race with 8.2 million ballots cast.

Meanwhile, Republican Rick Scott saw his lead in the Senate race over Democrat Bill Nelson shrink to 22,000 votes Thursday morning. By the end of the day, Nelson trailed by just 15,079 votes and his team saw a path to victory.

"At the end of this process Sen. Nelson is going to prevail," said Marc Elias, a veteran Washington, D.C., recount attorney hired by Nelson. "I am very measured in how I treat what I say. When I say it is currently a jump ball … I mean that."

Elias laid out three areas where Nelson could win enough votes to hold onto his Senate seat after a recount. They are:

• Uncounted ballots in South Florida: Broward County, where Nelson received 68.9 percent of the votes, was still counting early voting and vote-by-mail ballots as of Thursday evening. Palm Beach County, where Nelson received 58.4 percent of the votes, hadn't finished tabulating vote-by-mail ballots and won't until Friday.

• Undervotes in the Senate race: In Broward County, about 707,000 people turned in ballots. But only 676,000 voted in the Senate race. That's a 30,000-vote difference, a remarkable disparity given the stakes in this race and the name-recognition of these officials. By comparison, more people voted for Chief Financial Officer than U.S. Senate. Elias believes the problem was machine generated and it would be remedied in a recount. The local election supervisor disputed that possibility.

•Provisional ballots: By Saturday, all counties will submit their unofficial election results to the state, which will include provisional ballots submitted by people who forgot an ID or voted at the wrong precinct. In 2016, voters cast 24,460 provisional ballots and 10,998 were counted. In most counties that year, provisional ballots tended to produce outcomes considerably more favorable to Democrats than traditional ballots.

Democrats on Thursday scrambled to get provisional voters to local county elections offices to verify their identities and addresses by a 5 p.m. deadline. Elections officials are also awaiting mail-in ballots from active-duty military, not due until Nov. 16.

Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties together sent 15,000 ballots overseas and Republicans believe these military voters will boost their outcomes.

Still unclear, too, is the status of thousands of absentee ballots flagged for mismatched signatures. Canvassing boards around the state review these ballots and decide whether to accept or reject them. That process has already begun and may be complete in several places.

Lee County, for instance, threw out 358 ballots with what officials deemed mismatched signatures. Numbers were not immediately available, though the Tampa Bay Times requested them from a number of other supervisors.

A machine recount could begin as early as Saturday. Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Scott appointee, began preparing local elections officials Thursday for the chaos to come.

"The recounts will be nationally watched … (we're) under a microscope," Detzner said on a conference call with counties.

Republicans sought to cast a cloud over the entire post-Election Day process before the recounts proceed. "Do the math," was a frequent mantra from the GOP on social media. Scott's campaign as well as Sen. Marco Rubio asserted, with scant evidence, that Democrats were plotting to "steal" the election.

Adding to the unease, however, is the source of the confusion and delays: Broward County. It's an election office infamous for its controversies and questionable administration going back to the Bush-Gore recount.

"The Broward Elections Supervisor has been pulling stunts like this for years and we're not going to let her get away with it," tweeted Ronna McDaniel, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

Supervisor Brenda Snipes responded that Broward is a heavily populated place and it takes time to get through all the ballots.

On Tuesday, Scott claimed victory at his Naples election rally even though no major news networks had declared him the winner. The Associated Press still has not called the race.

Even though he was now within recount range, Gillum still faces a steep climb to supplant DeSantis. Unlike in the Senate contest, there is so far not a complaint about undervotes or similar concerns in the governor's race.

"I would be dishonest if I didn't say this wasn't hard," Gillum said in Facebook video. "This is extremely hard. But you know what, the fight for progress, the fight for change, the fight for what it is we want, it's hard."

DeSantis, speaking briefly with reporters in Hialeah Gardens, said despite the potential recount process he was "looking forward to serving" in office.

"I'm proud to have been elected on Tuesday night. It's a great honor," he said. "We're working really hard on the transition. We'll let the lawyers do what they got to do but we're good."

Democrats have moved ahead in one Cabinet race before the recount begins: Commissioner of Agriculture.

Trailing on election night, Nikki Fried led Republican Matt Caldwell by 2,896 votes late Thursday.

The shift in fortunes emboldened Fried to declare victory. The outcome remains uncertain, but not this: Fried, who ran the most unabashedly pro-marijuana, pro-gun reform campaign this cycle outperformed every other Democrat running statewide.

If she happens to be the lone Democrat to hold statewide office by next year, she would instantly become a frontrunner to challenge DeSantis for governor in 2022.

"Since the first returns came in on election night, we have said that seeing through this process to the end, ensuring every vote is counted so the voices of Floridians are heard, and their will is respected — is the top priority," Fried said Thursday.

A Tampa Senate race is also in recount range. Democrat Rep. Janet Cruz leads incumbent Republican Sen. Dana Young by 289 votes.

Two Florida House seats — in Volusia and Palm Beach — likely will be decided by recount, too.

Times/Herald staff writers Zachary T. Sampson, Samantha Gross, David Smiley, Elizabeth Koh, Steve Bousquet and Langston Taylor contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at