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Miami-Dade wraps up U.S. Senate recount after flood of undervotes

There were 181 new votes for Nelson.
Miami-Dade Election Center supervisors recount the ballots and are halfway through the recount on Monday. (C.M. Guerrero/Miami Herald/TNS)
Miami-Dade Election Center supervisors recount the ballots and are halfway through the recount on Monday. (C.M. Guerrero/Miami Herald/TNS)
Published Nov. 16, 2018
Updated Nov. 16, 2018

It was a fairly quick U.S. Senate recount in Miami-Dade County, and that's bad news for Bill Nelson.

Florida's most populous county made short work of hand recounting more than 10,000 ballots that machines determined didn't include a readable vote for either Republican Rick Scott, Florida's outgoing governor, or Nelson, the three-term incumbent U.S. senator and a Democrat. The final results: only 181 new votes for Nelson. He needs more than 12,000 statewide to flip his current loss to Scott into a win.

Christina White, the county's appointed elections supervisor, shared the manual recount results shortly before 1 p.m. Most of the work was finished by lunchtime. Miami-Dade cleared out a room of ballot screeners mid-morning as a canvassing board wrapped up the final inspection of some questionable ballots to see which ones could be counted as new votes for either candidate.

The counting teams reviewed more than 10,000 ballots, and a tiny fraction of them yielded new votes. The county's three-person canvassing board awarded 348 new votes for Nelson and 167 for Scott. The end result was Nelson only narrowed Scott's lead by 181 votes. Miami-Dade has the largest number of voters in Florida, and accounted for 1 out of every 10 ballots cast in Florida. Nelson was counting on a much larger amount of new votes from deep-blue Miami-Dade to win his longshot bid for victory in the manual recount that began Thursday afternoon across Florida.

Most races have significant numbers of ballots where voters opt not to participate and simply skip the contest. Those are called undervotes, and they offer no help for Nelson, who entered the statewide recount nearly a week ago down 12,000 votes to Scott.

Undervotes are the fastest to recount. They're blank, and can just be placed in a do-not-count bin by county election workers paid to screen ballots under the scrutiny of campaign observers. The more questionable ballots have pen strokes on them screening machines couldn't decipher during the regular automated process that produced the results for Election Day from more than 800,000 votes cast.

Miami-Dade's manual recount of the 10,039 un-scannable ballots began at 9 p.m. Thursday, hours after Florida ordered one statewide in the senate and agriculture races. Both contests emerged from the six-day machine recount with margins within .25 percent, the trigger for a hand recount. The race for governor ended above that margin, leaving Republican Ron DeSantis ahead and the presumed governor-elect once the machine recount ended in Florida at 3 p.m. Thursday.

After four hours of ballot screening, Miami-Dade halted the hand-recount process at 1 a.m. Friday. It resumed after 9 a.m., with a seemingly wide cushion ahead of a noon Sunday deadline for turning in the final results to Tallahassee. While the senate race gets the most attention, the agriculture race promises to demand more work. There are more than 31,000 problematic ballots in that race, with almost all of them counted as undervotes by the scanning machines.

In a hand recount, the focus for trailing candidates is ballots with extra ink on them. Some voters circle a candidate's name instead of filling in an oval as instructed, or cross out the candidate they don't want.

A three-person canvassing board in each county decides whether a voter's intent is clear through the markings that machines couldn't count. Both candidates are bound to gain votes in that process, but Nelson needs far more than Scott to flip the current results into a win by the noon Sunday deadline for counties to finish their hand recounts.

Miami-Dade hasn't released results from its senate recount, which was mostly finished by 10:30 a.m. Dozens of vote screeners were dismissed from a counting room, hordes of partisan observers leaving with them. That left Miami-Dade's three-person canvassing board to inspect the questionable ballots forwarded to them from the counting teams.

The county kept the media far from the canvassing table, so it wasn't known mid-morning how many ballots got before members Tanya Brinkley and Victoria Ferrer, both Circuit Court judges, and Christina White, the county's appointed elections supervisor. But if Counting Team No. 19 is representative of the process, finding additional votes for Nelson will be an uphill climb.

The team, one of 20 assembled in a training room inside the Election Department's Doral offices, inspected 167 ballots in about 30 minutes. Of those, 22 were sent to the canvassing board for a decision. Two were placed in an overvote bin, the place for ballots where ovals for both candidates were filled in completely. The 143 others were placed in the undervote bin — ballots where the senate race was left blank and with no need for a second look.

Some overvotes are created when a candidate opts to voice disatisfaction for both candidates on the ballot.

Jesus Suarez, a Republican elections lawyer assigned to represent the Scott campaign's interest before the canvassing board, said there were quite a few "none-of-the-above" statements recorded on ballots for senate.
"The one thing I can tell you for sure," Suarez said during a break, "is the the third-place winner in this is 'Some Other Dude.' "

This story was reported by Douglas Hanks.

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