Florida recount 2018: Still confused? Read this.

A handy Q and A to frequent questions about Florida's election recount, which ended Sunday.
A voting technician sorts ballots at the Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections facility in Riviera Beach, Fla., Nov. 10, 2018. Florida’s 67 counties submitted their midterm vote tallies to state elections authorities on Saturday, setting the stage for a recount of three statewide races as the contests for Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner came in too close to call. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times) XNYT
A voting technician sorts ballots at the Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections facility in Riviera Beach, Fla., Nov. 10, 2018. Florida’s 67 counties submitted their midterm vote tallies to state elections authorities on Saturday, setting the stage for a recount of three statewide races as the contests for Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner came in too close to call. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times) XNYT
Published Nov. 19, 2018|Updated Nov. 19, 2018

Why did this election take so long? The election should have been done Nov. 6. Why were votes still being counted?

Actually, the election took no more time than any other election, we just normally don't notice the extended timeline. Florida's election law doesn't require final results until nearly two weeks after Election Day. For those two weeks, votes always continue to trickle in— for example, overseas absentee ballots were never supposed to be counted until Saturday, Nov. 17. Most of the time, one candidate already has a clear lead by the time those ballots are tabulated, so no one is paying attention to the final vote counts that change slightly within that two-week window, because ultimately they won't change the result.

As long as one candidate has a lead of more than 0.5 percent from the second-place finisher, that timeline never gets public attention. Races that fall within that margin trigger a recount process, and this year races for governor, senator and agriculture commissioner were that close. Recount results are due Sunday, Nov. 18 in Tallahassee. Two days from then, Tuesday, Nov. 20, has always been the day that Florida planned on certifying the 2018 election results. It's just very rare for the rest of us to be paying attention this far after Election Day.

What is voter fraud and did it happen?

Voter fraud is a broad term that refers to any illegal interference in an election. The umbrella term can include everything a wide range of things — bribery, illegal voter registration, tampering with voting machines or ballot boxes, voter impersonation, vote buying, false advertising about the election date or how to vote and other illegal activities — according to government elections information.

Voter fraud implies intent to interfere, and does not include the effect of incompetence which can still be illegal but would not reach the level of criminal.

Voter fraud is rare, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law. A national review of the 2016 election found four documented cases of voter fraud.

There has been no evidence of fraud in the Florida elections to date, despite allegations from high-profile Republicans including President Donald Trump. Rick Scott's campaign has provided no evidence to support its claims of voter fraud in Broward and Palm Beach counties. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it has received no reports of illegal activity activity in Broward, nor had Scott formally requested an investigation into voter fraud.

If it's not fraud, what happened in Broward County?

The consensus answer seems to be disorganization and mistakes, and some of the things that happened might be illegal, but it will take a judge to determine that.

There is no denying, Broward County's Department of Elections has had its share of problems. They include publishing results too early, publishing results late, a high-profile hack by the Russian government and illegal ballot destruction, a ruling that did not include comment on criminal intent. It turns out, Broward Elections Department was directly responsible for only about half of those mishaps.

So why is Broward County in the hot seat this time around? The results of the entire machine recount were thrown out after the county was two minutes late in submitting results, and more than 2,000 ballots went missing due to "co-mingling" of early voting ballots. Those votes were counted in the initial tally Nov. 10 and submitted to the state Sunday.

On Sunday, Broward will submit its original results, tallied on election night, plus overseas ballots, provisional ballots that were later accepted by the canvassing board, and 27 mail ballots accepted after cure affidavits were submitted by the extended deadline.

The state has had election officials stationed at the county elections office since Election Day to oversee its election administration. The have reported no instances of criminal activity, said Florida Division of Elections spokeswoman Sarah Revell. The Herald is still waiting on the state to fulfill a records request for that would give us access to correspondences from those observers. No official reports have been filed.

The first, and so far only, instance in which state officials have flagged a possible violation of elections law concerns faulty forms sent to voters in at least four counties, including Broward, that may have caused them to miss the deadline for fixing problems with their mail-in ballots. Emails released by Florida Department of State show that the forms appear to have been sent by the state Democratic Party. The FDOS has asked federal prosecutors to investigate.

Also, 23 ballots, previously ruled invalid by the Broward County canvassing board, will be counted in the state's official total after being mixed in with just under 200 valid ballots. Brenda Snipes said she doesn't expect any race to be swayed by 23 votes.

Did Broward miss the deadline intentionally to not include Nelson's sliding vote count?

There's no evidence Broward intentionally missed the deadline. In the six days between the machine recount being ordered and the 3 p.m. deadline, Herald reporters observed staff working day and night to recount votes.

When it was announced Broward had missed the deadline by two minutes due to unfamiliarity in using the state portal, Broward's director of elections planning, Joseph D'Alessandro, said, "Basically I just worked my ass off for nothing."

Had the state received Broward's second count, Rick Scott would have benefited by about 700 votes in a race where he currently leads by more than 12,500 votes.

The machine recount votes could have been submitted to the final state total on Sunday if the canvassing board and supervisor of elections so chose, but they decided against it because of the 2,040 early voting ballots that were improperly handled and not counted in the machine recount. Judges said they didn't want to disenfranchise the 2,040 voters.

What happened to my absentee ballot and how do I know it counted?

We have received dozens of reports from voters—from both parties and non-affiliated— about problems they had with mail ballots. Many never received their mail ballot, despite applying sometimes months in advance. Others, said they mailed theirs back with plenty of time, only to have it not arrive at the department of elections by the deadline, 7 p.m. on Election Day. It is impossible to quantify the extent of the problem or the impact it may have had on the final results of tight races.

The breakdown seems to have happened on multiple fronts. In some cases, it seems that elections departments may have been slow to send out requested mail ballots. However, it also appears that sending the ballots by mail took longer this year. Elections officials say the amount of time a ballot sits in the mail is a question for the United States Postal Service and out of their control. Previously, a week was considered enough time. However, voters told the Herald their votes weren't received despite being sent sometimes two or more weeks in advance.

A recent study by the ACLU also found that mail ballots are 10 times more likely to be rejected than ballots cast any other way. The most common reason is a problem with the signature, the study found.

Mail ballots with mismatched or missing signatures are rejected by county canvassing boards. The voter will then be notified by the elections department of the problem with their ballot and given the opportunity to submit identification along with a "cure affidavit" affirming the voter is who they say they are. The original deadline for submitting the cure affidavit was Nov. 5 at 5 pm. However, a U.S. Circuit Court judge ruled that deadline was unfair for the voters whose ballots arrived between Nov. 5 and Nov. 6 — in other words, in time to meet the deadline for ballot submission, but too late to fix any problems because of the deadline for submitting a cure affidavit. The deadline for submitting a new, updated cure affidavit, was Saturday, Nov. 17 at 5 pm.

Between Miami-Dade and Broward — the only elections departments we currently have these numbers for — 33 mail ballots were accepted due to affidavits submitted. by the mail ballot.

To check the status of your mail ballot, visit the State Elections Department's voter information look up. The portal has information on when the ballot was sent out, when it was returned to the elections department, and whether or not it has been tabulated. If the ballot is marked tabulated, it counted. If there was a problem with the signatures, that will also be reflected in the portal.

According to Robert Rodriguez of Miami-Dade Elections, the online portals should be updated within 24 hours of tabulation. (Originally, it took three days, he said, but that was recently changed.) Given that all results have to be submitted to the state on Sunday, check the portal at the end of the day Monday to see if your mail ballot was counted.

What happened to the ballots from the Opa-locka post office?

One election mishap in Miami-Dade that drew national attention was the fate of scores of mail-in ballots that, after Election Day, were still in the postal distribution center in Opa-locka. Florida law requires mail-in ballots that arrive by Election Day to be counted, no matter when they were mailed or postmarked. Miami-Dade said it received 266 mail-in ballots from the Opa-locka center on Nov. 10, four days after Election Day. The department said it would not add the ballots to its totals since Florida law does not allow it.

Did they really count every ballot by hand?

No. Just a tiny portion of the ballots cast statewide. The manual recount for the U.S. Senate and agriculture commissioner race only looks at ballots where a machine scanner was unable to record a vote for either contest. Teams of election inspectors screened those ballots, and a three-person canvassing board made the final decision on whether to count them for one candidate or another.

I didn't vote for one of the constitutional amendments. Was my ballot not counted?

Don't worry, it was counted. Machine scanners are programmed to count every vote that's readable on a ballot. A contest that is left blank is registered as an "undervote." Undervotes only get close attention during a manual recount, a laborious process reserved for unusually tight contests.

Manual recounts are underway for the senate and agriculture-commissioner races. Election inspectors look at any ballot a machine registered as blank for the contest being recounted but ignore the rest of the ballot. So if you didn't vote for a constitutional amendment but did vote for agriculture commissioner and senate, the rest of your ballot was counted by Election Day and likely ignored during the current manual recount.

How many absentee voided votes (no signature or not matching) were there?

The Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau asked all 67 counties for these numbers. About half the counties responded. Based on those responses, we know at least 743 vote-by-mail ballots were rejected due to not having a signature. At least, 1,069 vote-by-mail ballots were rejected for having a mismatched signature. Information presented by the Division of Elections to a federal judge reported about 3,600 mismatched vote-by-mail ballots, though not all counties responded to that request for information, so the total is likely higher. These numbers were reported prior to a federal judge's extending the deadline for voters to cure mismatched signatures. Because of this, some of these mismatches will be fixed and these numbers will likely shift down.

On Saturday Nov. 17, Miami-Dade county accepted six previously rejected mail ballots after the voters successfully appealed within the extended timeline. Broward County accepted 27.

How many other votes were rejected?

In addition to the rejected vote-by-mail ballots for signature-related issues, at least 1,341 provisional ballots were rejected. Provisional ballots are usually issued if a voter is unable to provide ID to verify his or her identity at the polls or if he or she shows up at the wrong precinct.

For those whose vote-by-mail or provisional ballot is rejected due to a signature mismatch, county election offices notify the person and they have a fixed time frame in which to fix the mismatched signature. Vote-by-mail ballots that arrived after the 7 p.m. Election Day deadline are not counted.

Why are the first count and machine recount different? Shouldn't the results be the same? Do the discrepancies mean there is something wrong with the system?

In the first and second recount, votes are tallied using ballot-scanning machines. Before being used, machines are tested for accuracy. But it's possible that while machines started out calibrated, after processing thousands of ballots the machine became worn out and simply didn't tabulate some votes, said Michael T. Morley, an assistant professor of law at Florida State University. It's also possible that there could be a data-reporting error on behalf of the county, or it's possible some ballots were accidentally not reprocessed. All of these possibilities could be true in either the first count or machine recount, so it's hard to know which is the correct number.

However, generally speaking, most counties only report slight discrepancies. In the 2018 midterm machine recount, statewide there was a difference of about 800 votes in each of the three recounted races. This did nothing to change the percent difference between all of the candidates, moving two races to a manual statewide recount. If a race were contested by just a few hundred votes, this could be significant. Under Florida law, if a county successfully reports its machine recount numbers to the state by the deadline, those second results will take the place of the first. Else, the first numbers stand.

Broward County in particular reported 3,500 fewer votes in its Senate race after the machine recount, as well as 2,400 fewer votes for Governor and 2,000 fewer votes for Commissioner of Agriculture. Though Broward finished its recount on time, trouble using the state's website led it to report its results two minutes after the deadline. Staffers also mishandled 2,040 early voting ballots and didn't count them. Because of this, its first results were used in the state numbers released after the machine recount deadline. Rick Scott's campaign has asked the Secretary of State to use the certified second count, which favored him, though the county canvassing board has chosen to use the first count.

Hillsborough County also had fewer votes — 846 fewer — than the initial unofficial total. Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer noted that his office experienced two power outages and lost a voting machine. Hillsborough chose not to submit its recounted numbers.

Why was there such a large discrepancy between votes cast in the governor and U.S. Senate races in Broward County? Is this evidence of voter fraud?

Broward's director of elections planning, Joseph D'Alessandro, told judges that the discrepancy between the first count and the recount — about 2,040 votes — was due to "a commingling of ballots."

"We did not correctly handle the ballots," he said. "We are going to look into that and see what took place."

Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes later said the discrepancy came from misfiled early voting ballots that weren't counted. The county's canvassing board ordered her to preserve all digital records of every ballot. Snipes recommended to the canvassing board that numbers from the first count be used, a proposal the board accepted.

When I went on elections results pages, I noticed more voters were added after Election Day. What gives?

You may have noticed that number of registered voters has risen on some county election results pages or on their website's main page since the election. This doesn't change the number who could vote on Election Day. In Florida, you must be registered to vote 29 days before the election to vote. That was Oct. 9 for the 2018 general election. Those registered voters are the population of total possible voters in an election.

But more people register every day. Teens can also pre-register to vote in Florida, so when they turn 18, they become a registered voter and are added to that tally. Some counties are better about updating the current number of registered voters than others, so if you think something looks weird, check what the "updated date" is next to the registration numbers on the county supervisor of elections page. Leon County hasn't updated since October while Broward updates daily, so it depends.

The bottom line: the total number of voters listed now, is not the same as it was on election day. And total eligible voters does not equal the total number of people who actually voted.

— Sarah Blaskey, Caitlin Ostroff, Doug Hanks and Alex Harris

Herald staff writer Martin Vassolo and Tampa Bay Times Reporter Zack T. Sampson contributed to this report.