Florida has likely recount in this Senate race separated by 21 votes

The razor-thin margin of votes means a likely recount in the race for a Miami district in the Florida Senate, a seat José Javier Rodríguez won four years ago and was fighting to defend.
Democratic Florida Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez campaigning as he shows his support for democratic candidate for Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava on the first day of early voting for the general election at Shenandoah Branch Library at 2111 SW 19th St. on Monday, October 19, 2020, in Miami, Florida.
Democratic Florida Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez campaigning as he shows his support for democratic candidate for Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava on the first day of early voting for the general election at Shenandoah Branch Library at 2111 SW 19th St. on Monday, October 19, 2020, in Miami, Florida. [ DAVID SANTIAGO DSANTIAGO | MIAMI HERALD ]
Published Nov. 4, 2020

MIAMI — In the wee hours of the morning after Election Day, Miami Democratic state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez was trailing Republican challenger Ileana Garcia by just 21 votes.

The razor-thin margin of votes means a likely recount in the race for Senate District 37, a seat Rodríguez won four years ago and was fighting to defend.

Late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, Rodríguez’s team and his wife, Sonia Succar Ferré, gathered around folding tables in a makeshift war room to strategize.

Meanwhile Garcia, founder of Latinas for Trump, celebrated at Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana alongside supporters and Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, who unseated Donna Shalala in Florida’s 27th Congressional District.

“I knew it was going to be difficult, but we were clear on what we wanted to do and what we want to get done in Tallahassee,” Garcia told the Miami Herald outside the noisy restaurant. “So when that happens, there is a clear path.”

But the path, it appears, is not so clear.

By law, the first unofficial results must be submitted by the county canvassing board to the state on Friday. It is then that Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Christina White could announce a recount.

In Florida, a machine recount occurs when the margin is less than or equal to 0.5% of total votes. If after a machine recount, the margin is less than or equal to 0.25%, a manual recount occurs. The automatic recount must finish by Nov. 12.

In Florida, a recount can’t be requested.

As of Wednesday morning, the margin in Rodríguez’s race was 0.01%.

With all precincts reporting at 10:30 p.m., Rodríguez was trailing Garcia by 110 votes, although Miami-Dade election officials at the time said about 11,000 vote-by-mail ballots were still uncounted.

By 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, election officials had counted all ballots and Garcia’s lead in the race shrunk to 21 votes out of 215,411.

The only ballots that remain pending are provisional ballots and vote-by-mail ballots that had issues with signatures, Miami-Dade Deputy Supervisor of Elections Suzy Trutie told the Herald on Wednesday morning. Trutie, however, did not have a tally.

“Yes, we are in a recount,” Rodríguez tweeted.

Gov. Ron DeSantis Wednesday said during a press conference in Tallahassee that “I think we would rather be in our position than in the other position,” referring to the probable recount.

Republicans turned out in large numbers in Miami-Dade and helped boost political newcomer Garcia, a former television personality who declined interviews with the Herald in the final weeks of the election. She largely focused on branding Rodríguez as a Democrat with a “far-left agenda,” which she characterized as one that would increase taxes, expand the role of government and “take us down a socialist path.”

Rodríguez, a Harvard-trained attorney, pushed back against the attacks, saying “phantom political problems” were the only ammunition Garcia had on him.

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Instead, he pointed to his time in the Legislature pushing for measures that addressed climate change, sea level rise and vowed to overhaul the state’s unemployment system — including raising the maximum benefits to $500 per week — if reelected.

But Garcia’s casting Rodríguez as extreme or a socialist sympathizer proved effective in Miami, which is home to hundreds of thousands of residents who fled Cuba and South and Central American countries led by authoritarian regimes.

Garcia did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Trump consolidated much of the Cuban-American vote, winning over not only older, more conservative exiles, but also newer arrivals who’d leaned toward President Barack Obama in 2012, according to polls. Cuban turnout for Republicans also helped down-ballot wins for the party.

“What we’re seeing with the Cuban-American community, the Colombian-American community, the Venezuelan-American community, all in South Florida, is nothing short of spectacular. There’s just so much energy,” Trump political adviser Jason Miller told reporters on a campaign call Tuesday.

Counting ballots

Miami-Dade election officials on Wednesday afternoon identified 238 provisional ballots cast in Senate District 37. The ballots are set aside and will be counted only when eligibility is determined and approved by election officials.

As of Wednesday morning, 1,868 vote-by-mail ballots cast in Miami-Dade were flagged as invalid because they were missing the required signature or had a mismatched signature, said Trutie, who did not have the breakdown yet on how many of those ballots were cast for District 37.

Voters have until Thursday at 5 p.m. to fix or “cure” an error on their ballot if it is rejected. They need to submit a provisional ballot cure affidavit to their elections office for consideration to have their vote count.

Provisional ballots are meant to provide backup for in-person voters if there’s a question about their eligibility when they show up to vote. Vote-by-mail ballots can also be rejected for not having a signature or not having a matching signature.

Rodríguez campaign adviser Christian Ulvert pointed toward Democrats' success in mail ballot turnout, and said he thinks a full count could reveal a lead for Rodriguez.

“The heavy support in the vote-by-mail world means that number can quickly change, as we saw overnight,” Ulvert said. “But all those things need to happen in the next 48 hours. There’s a higher potential that we will be in a better position.”

The dark money mailer

District 37, which includes Coral Gables, Key Biscayne, Palmetto Bay and Pinecrest, is made up of about 36% registered Democrats and 31% Republicans. But it appears Democrat votes were siphoned off from Rodríguez and went toward no-party candidate Alex Rodriguez, who shares a last name.

The lesser-known Rodriguez scored almost 3% of the votes — 6,366 — that certainly could have decided the race. His candidacy was widely advertised in District 37 via political mail ads that were funded by a mystery donor.

A mailer advertising Rodriguez, for example, promises to fight for climate change, hold police accountable and guarantee a “living wage.” It then urges voters to “cut the strings” from party-backed candidates.

The mailers were sent to voters in two other competitive seats, Senate District 39 in South Miami-Dade and Monroe County and Senate District 9 in Seminole and Volusia counties. The ads said they were paid for by Our Florida PC or The Truth PC.

Proclivity, the mysterious group whose money is tied to the mailers, paid $550,000 to the two political committees Oct. 3. Two days later, the political committees spent the money on the mail ads, campaign finance records show.

Alex Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment. According to financial disclosure documents filed with the state, Rodriguez is the general manager of a diesel engine service and repair shop in west Miami-Dade County, and lives in Palmetto Bay.

Voters elected Republican state Rep. Ana Maria Rodriguez to Senate District 39 and Jason Brodeur, a Republican former state representative, to Senate District 9. In both races, the Republican candidates beat Democrats by larger margins than the ones seen in the race for Senate District 37.

Similar campaign mailers, however, aimed to confuse voters and promoted little-known, third-party candidates in all three races.

In Senate districts 39 and 9, the third-party candidates garnered less than 2% of the vote.

In the District 9 race, the NPA candidate received 5,766 votes, and the margin in the race as of Wednesday afternoon was 7,720. In the District 39 race in South Florida, the NPA candidate received 3,633 but the margin in the race is a more decisive 28,424.

What goes into a recount?

Those in charge of recounting votes — the county canvassing boards — are comprised of the county supervisor of elections, a circuit court judge and county commission chair. This group is tasked with testing voting machines for technical errors and reporting any problems to the Secretary of State’s office within 11 days.

A machine recount means damaged or crumpled ballots are duplicated, and all ballots are re-scanned and counted. Then, the total votes cast according to the machines, are compared with the votes the county initially reported Tuesday night and into Wednesday. If the numbers match up, the vote was reported accurately in the eyes of the county. And if the margin is larger than 0.25%, the results will be considered official.

If the threshold after this second round of counting drops below 0.25%, however, the county can order a manual recount.

A manual recount means the canvassing boards count each over-vote and under-vote by hand. An over-vote means the voter picked more choices than allowed on their ballot. An under-vote means the voter made no choice or fewer than the number of allowable choices on the ballot.

This process can take days.

The recount can be canceled if the losing candidate requests or if the number of over-votes and under-votes is less than the number of votes needed to change the election outcome.

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