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A machine can’t decide voter intent. In a manual recount, people must

Undervotes and overvotes in two statewide elections will test Florida's post-recount voting standards.
At a 2016 conference, a vendor showed the many ways Florida voters mark their ballots [STEVE BOUSQUET - Times]
At a 2016 conference, a vendor showed the many ways Florida voters mark their ballots [STEVE BOUSQUET - Times]
Published Nov. 14, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — For the first time in Florida, under intense public and media scrutiny, election officials must review hundreds of thousands of ballots containing undervotes and overvotes in two statewide races that were too close to call under state law.

In a machine recount, machines do the work. In a manual recount, humans do the work.

What's at stake is a review of ballots where voters made no choice, or made more than one choice, in races for U.S. Senate and state agriculture commissioner.

In public meetings, with observers from both parties watching, county canvassing boards must try to figure out what voters were thinking when they made choices with circles or arrows or hen-scratching with a felt-tip pen.

They have to get it done by noon on Sunday. It's a subjective system, certain to face criticism in the days ahead.

"Humans are generally not good at counting a large number of things," said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research in Washington.

That's not because of malicious intent, he said: "Humans get tired. We're talking about people who've been working, at this point, incredibly long days for well over a week."

After the chaos of the 2000 presidential recount, Florida overhauled its voting procedures by junking those antiquated punch-card ballots and adopting more specific standards for divining people's choices, what's known as voter intent.

"A manual review of the voter's markings on a ballot is required to determine whether there is a clear indication that the voter has made a definite choice in a contest," a state rule on voting standards says. "The canvassing board must first look at the entire ballot for consistency."

That means a ballot probably won't be counted if a voter circled a favored candidate's name in one race but underlined it in another.

The rule (1S-2.027), first adopted by the Division of Elections in 2002, was meant to guide the work of canvassing boards and election supervisors in statewide recounts. Read the rule in its entirety here.

Nobody anticipated it would happen twice in the same election.

The rule goes on for 13 pages and shows many examples of oddly-marked Florida ballots that should be counted as valid, even where voters failed to follow basic instructions to fill in the oval next to a favored candidate's name.

They include cases where a voter circled an arrow next to a candidate's name, or underlined a candidate's name, or circled the political party abbreviation next to a candidate's name — all legitimate votes.

The rule states that even in cases where a voter does not fill in an oval, the use of magic words such as "I vote no" or "this one" are also valid choices that must be counted.

"There's no exact science to this," Becker said. "It's almost impossible to legislate a standard on each one of these possibilities. This is why Florida has canvassing boards, so the decision doesn't rest with one person, so there are multiple in a transparent process with representatives of the parties looking over their shoulders."

Democrats call the rule arbitrary. They filed another lawsuit Tuesday to challenge the rule.

"We think there are provisions that unconstitutionally would affect a valid determination being made," said Ron Meyer, a lawyer in Tallahassee who represents Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

Meyer called the consistency standard "an irrational kind of a determination," and the magic words provision nonsensical.

Nelson trailed Gov. Rick Scott by 12,562 votes when counties submitted their first official returns on Saturday. Republican Matt Caldwell trailed Democrat Nikki Fried in the race for agriculture commissioner by 5,326 votes.

Across Florida, counties are finding a lot more undervotes than overvotes, especially in the down-ballot agriculture commissioner contest where neither candidate was well-known statewide.

In 23 Florida counties of all sizes that reported totals on their web sites, there were 31,529 undervotes and 1,542 overvotes in the Senate race.

The manual recount could help solve a mystery in Broward of why about 25,000 fewer voters voted in the Senate race than in the governor's race that appeared near the bottom of a column below lengthy voting instructions in three languages, as federal law requires.

Did all of those voters overlook the Senate race? Or was there a machine tabulation error? No other county had nearly as many Senate undervotes.

Broward's canvassing board reviewed dozens of provisional ballots for voter intent last Friday.

One voter wrote an X over the bubbles for both Scott and Nelson and then circled DEM for Nelson's party.

The canvassing board rejected that choice as invalid and marked it with a yellow sticky note before duplicating all of the voter's choices on a clean ballot. Lawyers for Nelson objected to the rejection of the voter's Senate choice.

All 67 counties must report results of machine recounts to the state by 3 p.m. on Thursday. Then, Secretary of State Ken Detzner will order manual recounts in cases in which two candidates are separated by 0.25 percent or less.

The Senate and agriculture commissioner races were within that range before machine recounts started. In the race for governor, Republican Ron DeSantis led Democrat Andrew Gillum by.0.41 percent, which is too large a gap to trigger a manual recount under state law.

Miami Herald staff writer Alex Harris contributed to this report from Miami.

Contact Steve Bousquet at and follow @stevebousquet.