Everybody Chill Out About the Florida Recounts
Amid court battles, accusations of fraud, and fears of a repeat of 2000, Florida is sorting out who won three key elections.
Protesters outside of the Broward County elections office. Photo by Jayme Gershen/Bloomberg via Getty
Roughly 625 miles from his home district, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz stood on the rear lift of a white Budget rental truck. Two pallets of copy paper boxes with signs that read, “Over 80,000 ballots found and discovered since Election Day” served as Gaetz’s props for an unproven sinister Democratic plot to steal victories away from Governor Rick Scott, former Congressman Ron DeSantis, and Matt Caldwell. The three men—all Republicans, like Gaetz—had supposedly eked out victories in last week’s elections for a US Senate seat, the governor’s mansion, and the agriculture commissioner’s office, respectively. All three races are headed for recounts as Republicans up to and including Donald Trump himself are accusing South Florida Democrats of trying to steal the election. Eighteen years after the 2000 presidential election hung in the balance on a Florida recount, the same sort of circus has descended on the state.
Dressed in a natty suit and holding a megaphone, Gaetz, who represents the state’s first district, in the Panhandle, addressed about a dozen protestors in right-wing regalia and a half-dozen reporters just outside the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill early Saturday morning.
“On Election Day, Broward reported approximately 634,000 ballots,” Gaetz yelled. “Since then, we have seen a reporting of 714,859 ballots. That is a difference of approximately 80,000 ballots that have been willed or spoken into existence.”
Gaetz then accused Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes of being unfit for her job. “Yesterday, a judge ruled that Brenda Snipes violated the Florida Constitution and that she has a legal obligation to make records available,” Gaetz said. “And she did not do that. If anyone has been proven to have violated court orders, violated state actions, and violated constitutional rights, they should be removed from office.”
Three women, one of them sporting a red Make America Great Again cap, chanted, “Lock her up!” One of the women, who didn’t want to give her name, told me Broward voters, regardless of party affiliation, are fed up with Snipes. “She is always messing up our elections,” the woman intoned. “Miami-Dade, which had more people voting with 800,000 ballots, reported their numbers on time. Snipes is just making excuses.”
Snipes, a Democrat who was first appointed to her post in 2003 by then Governor Jeb Bush, is taking fire from GOP leaders for her office’s slow-as-a-turtle vote tallying that chipped away at the narrow margins Scott, DeSantis, and Caldwell held over their opponents at the end of Election Day. Already, one of the three races in question appears to have flipped.
Late tallies put Caldwell’s opponent, Democrat Nikki Fried, ahead by 5,326 votes as the agriculture commissioner’s race headed to a manual recount. Meanwhile, machine recounts are also underway for the governor’s race, where DeSantis leads Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by 33,600 votes, and the Senate race, where Scott leads incumbent Bill Nelson by 12,600 votes. The recounts must be completed by November 14, two days before Florida’s official deadline to certify the election.
During a quick press conference last week at the governor’s mansion, Scott declared that he would not sit idly by while “unethical liberals try to steal this election” and demanded the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigate the Broward County Supervisor of Elections and Snipes, arguably the most controversial elections supervisor in the Sunshine State.
The governor doubled down on his accusations during appearances on Fox News with Sean Hannity and Chris Wallace. And his Senate campaign filed two lawsuits within the past 72 hours, including a complaint demanding a judge order FDLE and local law enforcement authorities to impound election equipment and ballots in Broward and neighboring Palm Beach County during breaks in the recount. On Friday, a judge ordered Snipes to allow voter records to be investigated—that’s the constitutional violation referenced by Gaetz.
In response, Democrats have accused Scott and his GOP colleagues of trying to suppress votes from being counted and turn Florida into a Banana Republic. "In suing to seize ballots and impound voting machines, Rick Scott is doing his best to impersonate Latin American dictators who have overthrown Democracies in Venezuela and Cuba,” Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Peñalosa said in a statement Sunday. “The Governor is using his position to consolidate power by cutting at the very core of our Democracy.”
The partisan bickering and the protests outside the Broward elections office is conjuring up memories of the historic 2000 recount in four Florida counties that cemented George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore after a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. But this is the first time in state history that a statewide recount is taking place. And while there is no arguing Snipes runs a embarrassingly dysfunctional operation—she’s run afoul the law multiple times before—there appears to be scant evidence of voter fraud in Broward. The FDLE has not received any credible allegations of any such crime.
Moreover, two monitors from Florida’s Division of Election have reported no criminal activity since being assigned to Snipes’s office to oversee her and her staff on Election Day, according to the Miami Herald. Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Scott appointee, increased his oversight of Broward elections in May following a court ruling that found Snipes broke the law when she green-lit the premature destruction of ballots in a contested 2016 congressional race.
The 2018 recount will likely go a lot smoother and produce a less controversial result despite all the noise coming from Republicans like Scott and Gaetz, according to Florida election law experts, including two individuals who played instrumental roles in the 2000 recount.
Bruce Rogow, founding professor of Nova Southeastern University’s law school who represented the Palm Beach County elections department during the 2000 recount, said he hasn’t seen any evidence of hanky-panky with ballots in Broward. “I don’t think any funny stuff is going on,” Rogow told me. “The disappointing part is that the count has taken longer in Broward and with its history, it just kind of adds to the hysteria.”
Bob Rosenberg, a retired judge who chaired the Broward Canvassing Board during the 2000 election, pointed out that there have been almost no complaints about the design of the ballots, which is what cast doubts on votes in the presidential race between Bush and Gore. Back then, voters had to punch holes in their ballots, but in some cases the machines didn’t punch all the way through, leaving “hanging chads” that resulted in votes not being counted, Rosenberg said.
In this case, the controversy is over the slow tabulation of ballots, he said. “You still had ballots coming in to be counted after Election Day,” said Rosenberg. “When an election is over and ballots are still coming in from right, left and center field, that is a cause for concern.”
Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor, posits Snipes and her staff may not have been prepared to deal with the record number of voters turning out for the 2018 midterm election. “The complaints seem to center on the magnitude of the votes that remained to be counted,” MacManus told me. “Neighboring Miami-Dade is a bigger county and met the deadlines. But before anybody talks about conspiracy, you need to get to the bottom of what caused the slowdown in counting ballots.”
Whatever ails the Broward election department, Snipes hasn't cured it. As of noon Monday, her office still hadn't started its recount while Miami-Dade was halfway done.
The state legislature has passed numerous reforms since the 2000 election that should make the recount process easier, MacManus said. “There is a standardized automatic procedure in place that didn’t exist in 2000,” she explained. “This trigger is really a blessing because you can’t accuse someone of wanting a recount in just one or two counties.”
On Monday, a judge denied Scott’s request to impound voting equipment, though he did advise that three sheriff’s deputies be added to the group of security professionals overseeing the recount in order to bolster confidence. The judge also told the lawyers to "tamp down the rhetoric," since the nation was watching the case so closely. Politicians who have been in the game as long as Scott and Gaetz shouldn’t need that kind of hint—it is not unusual for the outcome to remain in doubt well after election night during elections that produce record-setting turnout numbers and close races, according to Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an elections law professor at Stetson University.
“Folks need to calm down,” she told me. “We will know in good time who won all these contested races in Florida.”
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