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‘Virtually impossible’: Bill Nelson’s odds of a recount comeback

Things did not go well Friday for Nelson's bid to remain in the U.S. Senate.
In this Aug. 6 photo Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., listens during a roundtable discussion with education leaders from South Florida at the United Teachers of Dade headquarters in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky,)
In this Aug. 6 photo Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., listens during a roundtable discussion with education leaders from South Florida at the United Teachers of Dade headquarters in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky,)
Published Nov. 16, 2018

Election day has passed. More than 8 million votes have been counted (twice). And an unprecedented statewide manual recount is all but over.

So, too, it seems, is Bill Nelson's career in the U.S. Senate.

Already clinging to the thinnest of reelection hopes, the Democrat's fast-fading campaign took what appeared to be fatal blows Friday when a court ruling went against him and a manual recount across Florida's 67 counties progressed smoothly and with little drama.

Behind Gov. Rick Scott by an unofficial 12,603 votes, Nelson needed to snare a majority of the thousands of undervotes and overvotes spit out by vote tabulating machines during an automatic machine recount that ended Thursday. In particular, he needed to do well in heavily Democratic Broward County, where 30,447 ballots were deemed to be "undervotes" left uncounted by machines because voters failed to follow directions or simply didn't vote.

Nelson's campaign hoped the large number of undervotes was machine-related. But there was so little work to do Friday in Broward's Lauderhill elections headquarters that teams of volunteers were done in less than two hours and stopped working before the lunch catering arrived. Elections staffers said the large bulk of the undervoted ballots in the U.S. Senate race were simply left blank by voters.

"That's not dramatic," said Joseph D'Alessandro, Broward's director of election planning and development. "That's normal."

Nelson needed dramatic.

Florida's Division of Elections won't report final vote tallies in the Senate race until after noon Sunday, the deadline by which the state's elections supervisors must transmit the results following their manual recounts. But Nelson's small gains in Broward likely sealed Scott's victory, especially when considering how little the Democratic incumbent gained in other large, majority-Democratic counties.

Miami-Dade, for instance, made short work of some 10,000 undervotes and overvotes, combing through them all in a matter of hours to determine that Nelson gained 348 votes to Scott's 167. 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.

Palm Beach County also tore through 5,950 ballots in just a few hours. It's not yet clear how may votes Nelson gained or lost there or in or Broward.

The bins from Counting Team No. 19, one of 20 Miami-Dade assembled to inspect more than 10,000 problematic ballots in the U.S. Senate race and more than 30,000 in the statewide race for agriculture commissioner.

Nelson's attorney, Marc Elias, insisted for days that the high number of undervotes in Broward County was likely due to machine error. That belief was factored into predictions that Nelson would mount a recount comeback. But reams of ballots were left blank on the U.S. Senate race — an oddity considering the question was the first on the ballot.

Those undervotes represented about 0.4 percent of the county's total vote total. That percentage more than doubled in the small, southern portion of the county that belongs to Frederica Wilson's 24th congessional district — which was not on the ballot due to a lack of competition.

"I scoured through the ballot and found I had not selected a Senate candidate," said Jason Englund, a 29-year-old voter who filled out an absentee ballot in the district and nearly sealed it before realizing he'd missed the contest. "I guess I'm not the only one who had problems locating it."

But even those ballots that weren't left blank weren't necessarily intended to go Nelson's way. Jesus Suarez, an attorney observing the recount at Miami-Dade's elections headquarters, said even voters who didn't leave the race blank were in plenty of cases not voting for Nelson or Scott.

"The one thing I can tell you for sure," Suarez said during a break, "is that the third-place winner in this is 'Some Other Dude.' "

Other write-ins for the U.S. Senate race included Oprah Winfrey and "They both suck."

It's not yet clear what the vote total will be following the manual recount. Some counties may not yet be done with the U.S. Senate race. But Scott's campaign believes the race is over.

"With the hand recount concluding in most counties across the state showing no significant change in the margin, it's time for Bill Nelson to face reality and concede," said Scott campaign spokesman Chris Hartline.

Nelson's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Nelson's hope of continuing his 46-year political career weren't only tied to the hand recount, although the number of votes to swing in his favor through that process took on crucial importance when a machine recount actually showed Nelson slip further behind Scott. The three-term senator also filed multiple lawsuits that sought to belatedly introduce thousands of new ballots into the vote count, force an all-comprehensive manual recount in Palm Beach County and validate mail-in ballots that didn't make it to supervisors' offices by an election-eve deadline.

His campaign won the first of those decisions — sort of. U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker, who is presiding over more than a half-dozen recount-related lawsuits, agreed Thursday to give more than 4,000 voters the ability to "cure" mismatched signatures that caused their absentee and provisional ballots to be rejected. Nelson had asked Walker to simply allow all the ballots into the count.

It's not clear how many affidavits have been submitted.

Broward County began the state-mandated manual recount late than planned Friday morning. Hundreds of volunteers will review tenants of thousands of ballots for the U.S. Senate race.

Walker also ruled Friday against Nelson's lawsuit seeking to invalidate the state's guidelines for determining voter intent on undervotes and overvotes, and ruled previously against extending Thursday's deadline for machine recount totals to be submitted to the state. Ironically, Broward, which missed the deadline, had totals that would have placed Nelson further behind Scott.

"Even the relief he was asking for in court would have made the situation worse for him," said Michael Morley, an elections law professor at Florida State University. "So the lawsuit gambit failed, and the recount doesn't look like there are actual votes there to be counted. This election looks done."

Attorneys for Nelson and Scott continued to haggle in court Friday afternoon over vote tallies in Palm Beach County.

There are still thousands of overseas and military ballots that have yet to be tallied, so the counting is not yet over. And in a year where campaigns have been highly litigious, Nelson would have 10 days following the state's certification of Florida's election results in which to file an election contest.

But Morley, the FSU law professor, doesn't see a viable path forward for Nelson:

"It went from being a Hail Mary play to now a virtual — at least from what we're seeing, a virtual impossibility."

— David Smiley, Douglas Hanks, Alex Harris and Kyra Gurney

Tampa Bay Times reporter Lanston Taylor and McClatchy reporter Caitlin Ostroff contributed to this report.