With flashbacks to the 2000 presidential election, Florida was again ground zero this week for a vote recount with national implications.
But despite a host of lawsuits and controversies, by the weekend the state appeared to be closing in on decisions involving the election of a new governor, a U.S. senator and a state agriculture commissioner.
In race to succeed Gov. Rick Scott, Republican Ron DeSantis solidified his Nov. 6 victory after a machine recount basically verified his nearly 34,000-vote lead over Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. But Gillum has yet to concede.
The margin could be adjusted slightly after more overseas ballots are counted before the noon Sunday deadline for the official results. But the final tally is likely to represent the closest general-election victory in a governor’s race in the modern era.
DeSantis’ 0.41 percent winning margin was a veritable landslide compared to the 0.15 percent margin Republican Scott was holding over incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson as a manual recount began. And it was much more substantial than the 0.06 percent lead held by Democrat Nikki Fried over Matt Caldwell in the agriculture commissioner’s race.
The razor-thin margins and the continuing controversies over Florida’s statewide elections may only be a prelude to what’s on the horizon.
Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, will play a key role in the next presidential election, as Donald Trump seeks re-election to the office he holds in part thanks to a 1.2 percent victory margin in the Sunshine State two years ago.
A FLURRY OF LAWSUITS
The vote recount resulted in at least eight legal challenges being filed in federal court, with U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of Tallahassee handling all of the cases.
Here are key developments:
--- Siding with Nelson’s campaign and national Democrats, Walker gave voters until 5 p.m. Saturday to fix ballots that were rejected because of mismatched signatures.
His ruling came hours before a 3 p.m. Thursday deadline for a machine recount to be completed in the race between Nelson and Scott, whose 56,000-vote election-night lead had dwindled to fewer than 13,000 votes when the recount was ordered.
The lawsuit focuses on part of Florida law that requires signatures on mail-in and provisional ballots to match signatures on file with elections offices. Voters whose ballots are delivered by 5 p.m. the day before an election have the opportunity to “cure” signature mismatches. But people whose mail-in ballots are received after that, or voters who cast provisional ballots on Election Day, do not.
County canvassing boards make decisions about whether signatures match, and thus whether ballots should be counted. But counties don’t have uniform regulations to govern the decisions, Democrats argued, making the process unconstitutional.
The judge agreed.
“The precise issue in this case is whether Florida’s law that allows county election officials to reject vote-by-mail and provisional ballots for mismatched signatures --- with no standards, an illusory process to cure, and no process to challenge the rejection --- passes constitutional muster. The answer is simple. It does not,” Walker wrote in a 34-page order.
Walker called the opportunity to fix a ballot “the last chance a vote-by-mail voter has to save their vote from being rejected and not counted.”
“Florida law provides no opportunity for voters to challenge the determination of the canvassing board that their signatures do not match, and their votes do not count,” he wrote.
In contrast, the law allows voters or candidates to challenge signatures that were accepted, Walker noted.
Walker’s decision was upheld by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
--- Saying he refuses to “fashion a remedy in the dark,” Walker on Thursday turned down a request by Nelson’s campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to extend recount deadlines.
Walker, who held a telephone hearing on the issue Thursday morning, focused his order on Palm Beach County, which was unable to meet the machine recount deadline because of antiquated equipment. The judge wrote that the recount deadline “arbitrarily and disparately treats some voters differently because of their location and without taking into account the unpredictable circumstances of each election cycle.”
But he said he would not issue the preliminary injunction sought by the Democrats because it was uncertain how long it might take Palm Beach County to finish recounting ballots.
Walker wrote that “there is a complete dearth of evidence before this court concerning the status, progress, or expected completion of the ordered recounts in Palm Beach County.”
“This court must be able to craft a remedy with knowledge that it will not prove futile. It cannot do so on this record. This court does not and will not fashion a remedy in the dark,” the judge wrote.
--- In two other rulings on Thursday, Walker shot down an attempt to keep Scott from interfering in the recount process and nixed another challenge focused on the way county canvassing boards decide which ballots should be tossed.
The rulings, issued hours after Walker held hearings in a mash-up of cases, followed machine recounts in which Scott maintained a narrow lead over Nelson.
In the days following the Nov. 6 election, Scott and his supporters repeatedly castigated elections chiefs in Broward and Palm Beach counties as ballots in the heavily Democratic regions continued to be tallied and Scott’s advantage over Nelson shrank.
Standing outside the governor’s mansion two days after the election, Scott held a press conference accusing Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes and her Palm Beach County counterpart, Susan Bucher, of ineptitude and fraud. The governor also said he was asking the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate. His campaign Twitter account later urged Florida sheriffs to be on guard for election irregularities.
Scott’s comments prompted the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida to ask the federal court to remove the Republican governor and U.S. Senate candidate from the elections process.
One of Scott’s lawyers told Walker the governor intends to recuse himself from the state Elections Canvassing Commission, which is set to certify election results at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
But during a Thursday hearing, Larry Robbins, a lawyer for the voting-rights groups, told Walker that Scott should also be stripped of his authority to remove members of county canvassing boards, comprised of elections supervisors, county commissioners and judges.
By urging “the cops to go out and see what these unethical liberals are doing,” Scott has showed a bias against Palm Beach, Broward and possibly other counties, Robbins argued.
But, in a ruling later Thursday, Walker said there’s a difference between “typical campaign-trail puffery” --- which he called “increasingly bombastic, imprudent, and not necessarily rooted in objective facts” --- and what a public official says and does in his official capacity.
“Here, Scott has toed the line between imprudent campaign-trail rhetoric and problematic state action. But he has not crossed the line,” Walker wrote.
Scott, as a candidate, has the right to make speeches outside the mansion. But the governor can’t “undercut the count and mandatory recounts from his perch of public official,” the judge wrote, noting that Scott’s most “questionable conduct” occurred in his capacity as a candidate, not as governor.
In a separate lawsuit, Walker also refused to block state elections rules that outline the way ballots should be counted during manual recounts.
STILL A WINNER
For the second time, DeSantis declared victory in the 2018 Florida governor’s race.
The results of a state-ordered machine recount showed the former Republican congressman from Ponte Vedra Beach maintained a nearly 34,000-vote lead over his rival, according to the state Division of Elections.
DeSantis, who is slated to become governor on Jan. 8, only lost one vote from his lead in unofficial results that triggered the machine recount. Such recounts are required when margins between candidates are 0.5 percent or less.
“Those returns remain clear and unambiguous, just as they were on election night, and at every point throughout this process,” DeSantis said in a statement. “I remain humbled by your support and the great honor the people of Florida have shown me as I prepare to serve as your next governor.”
However, Gillum, who conceded the race on election night but later retracted his concession as the vote margin narrowed, indicated he is not ready to give up on the race.
“A vote denied is justice denied --- the state of Florida must count every legally cast vote. As today’s unofficial reports and recent court proceedings make clear, there are tens of thousands of votes that have yet to be counted,” Gillum said in a statement. “It is not over until every legally casted vote is counted.”
But unlike races for the U.S. Senate and state agriculture commissioner, which are headed for statewide manual recounts because the victory margins were less than 0.25 percent, the major vote-counting in the governor’s race is over.
County elections officials are scheduled to file their official returns to the state by noon on Sunday, with the state Elections Canvassing Commission meeting Tuesday morning to certify the results. Candidates have until Nov. 30 to challenge the election results.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Florida attracted the national spotlight amid recounts involving races for governor, U.S. Senate, agriculture commissioner and several legislative contests.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “We have been the laughingstock of the world in election after election. I get all that. … We’re still going to go to a default where we don’t count every vote,” said U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, expressing concern that state law does not have a provision to extend a vote recount in the case of voting machine problems.