Palm Beach County misses Florida election recount deadline

This is one of only two counties to miss the statewide deadline.
Published Nov. 15, 2018|Updated Nov. 16, 2018

Even prayers weren't enough for Palm Beach County to make Florida's recount deadline.

After battling with decade-old ballot-counting machines only capable of recounting one race at a time, overheated equipment and ballot count discrepancies, the county failed to meet the 3 p.m. Thursday state deadline for submitting updated vote totals in the races for U.S. Senate, governor and commissioner of agriculture and consumer services. Palm Beach, where nearly 600,000 ballots were cast, appeared to be one of only three counties to miss the deadline.

Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher had warned that elections staff would not be able to meet the deadline to recount votes cast in the governor and agriculture commissioner races and in a Florida House race, but said on Monday that she was confident her staff would complete the recount of votes in the Senate race.

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That changed after ballot-counting machines overheated on Tuesday night and gave incorrect vote totals, forcing the county to recount about 175,000 early votes. By Wednesday afternoon the machines had been fixed, but Bucher said she was "in prayer mode to finish on time." The new vote totals didn't match the totals from before the machines malfunctioned, forcing Bucher's information technology manager to hunt for several boxes of ballots that had already been recounted but whose tallies were lost when the equipment overheated.

"We gave a heroic effort and given probably three or four more hours we might have made the time," Bucher said on Thursday afternoon.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner ordered machine recounts last Saturday after receiving unofficial vote counts from the state's 67 elections departments. The recounts were automatically triggered because vote totals in the races between Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum, and Matt Caldwell and Nikki Fried were separated by less than half a percentage point. Palm Beach also had to recount votes for a state House seat that appeared to have been decided by just 37 votes.

Counties had until 3 p.m. Thursday to submit new vote tallies based on the machine recount. Detzner ordered a manual recount in the Senate and agriculture commissioner races around 5 p.m. because the vote totals were within a quarter of a percentage point. During a manual recount, election workers have to examine overvotes, which occur when a voter marks two candidates in a race, and undervotes, which occur when a voter leaves a race blank.

Shortly after Bucher made her announcement, however, the Nelson campaign sued Detzner and Palm Beach County to demand a hand count of all ballots "due to systematic machine failure during the machine recount."

Marc Elias, a Democratic election lawyer representing the campaign, explained on a call with reporters that given the problems with Palm Beach's ballot-counting machines, "it seems to us that the simplest and neatest remedy is to just do a full hand recount of Palm Beach County and thereby ensure that the voters of Palm Beach County are not disenfranchised."

Elias said in a tweet that he was also monitoring results in Hillsborough and Broward counties, where elections officials appeared to have missed the machine recount deadlines. Broward County finished recounting votes, but submitted the results minutes after the state deadline.

What happens in Palm Beach now that the county has missed the machine recount deadline?

A spokeswoman for Detzner said Tuesday that by law counties should continue counting past the deadline so that final tallies can be included in official results, which are due on Nov. 18 and will be certified by the state on Nov. 20. If Palm Beach doesn't make that deadline, the county's previously submitted results will automatically be considered official.

On Thursday, Palm Beach submitted its results from Saturday in lieu of machine recount results. Bucher said Thursday evening that she had decided to finish the machine recount of Senate votes before starting the manual recount on Friday at 11 a.m. Palm Beach has approximately 5,950 ballots with overvotes and undervotes in the Senate race, Bucher said, which she expects will only take a few hours to hand count.

After the manual recount is complete for the Senate race, Bucher said she would like to continue with the other recounts if she gets permission from a federal judge. That process could take weeks, however. Bucher told U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in a hearing on Thursday that finishing the full recount could "optimistically" take until Dec. 15 or possibly until "the later part of December, very close to Christmas."

Earlier in the day, Bucher blamed outdated machines for the county's failure to meet the deadline. "The fact of the matter is is that when equipment fails, there's not a lot I can do about it," she said.

Palm Beach has set aside $11 million to buy new equipment, but Bucher said the county hasn't yet purchased the machines because the state still needs to resolve a question about voting system compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In addition to the suit filed by Nelson's campaign on Thursday, another pending lawsuit could also impact Palm Beach's recount.

Democratic candidate Jim Bonfiglio first sued the state this week to extend the deadline for a recount in his race for House District 89 against Republican Mike Caruso, who was leading by just 37 votes. The case was moved to federal court, where Walker held a hearing late Thursday afternoon.

Bonfiglio's complaint argued that Palm Beach was prioritizing recounts by their position on the ballot — moving from U.S. Senate, to governor, then agriculture commissioner — before conducting the recounts in his state House race.

Though a ruling was not expected until Friday, Walker floated the idea that he could issue an order allowing the canvassing board to reorder the races that were being counted, permitting House District 89 votes to be counted after Senate votes.

On Thursday afternoon, in a separate case, Walker denied a request from Nelson's campaign to have recount deadlines extended across all 67 counties.

The judge cited the lack of information provided about the status of Palm Beach County's recount process and when it might be able to complete counting ballots.

"There is a complete dearth of evidence before this Court concerning the status, progress, or expected completion of the ordered recounts in Palm Beach County," he wrote. "In considering whether to grant the extraordinary relief of a preliminary injunction, the Court is required to balance the equities. … This balancing is effectively impossible without an understanding of the state and limitations of the current ongoing process."

Earlier Thursday, Walker had taken several entities to task, including the Florida Legislature and the Palm Beach County elections supervisor, for issues he said had led to the delayed counts.

"We have been the laughingstock of the world, election after election, and we chose not to fix this," he said. He also criticized the idea that he might extend the recount process without a new specific deadline, asking lawyers for Nelson who had requested the delay to elaborate on exactly what solution he should provide.

"You literally have blindfolded me, shoved me in a room, turned all the lights out and said, judge, you're supposed to fashion a remedy," he said.
"This Court must be able to craft a remedy with knowledge that it will not prove futile," he wrote later in his order. "It cannot do so on this record. This Court does not and will not fashion a remedy in the dark."

Maya Kaufman contributed to this report.