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Hand-recount of ballots begins in Florida's Broward County

An election worker in Broward County shows to election observers ballots that have been damaged and duplicated in the recount for three statewide races. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu
An election worker in Broward County shows to election observers ballots that have been damaged and duplicated in the recount for three statewide races. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu

LAUDERHILL, Florida — Florida’s two largest counties completed hand recounts in the state’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race on Friday morning, dispatching the meticulous process with startling speed.

Broward County, which had stumbled through a rocky machine recount, rolled through the state-mandated hand recount in just two hours Friday morning with only minimal arguments from partisan lawyers. Just to the south, Miami-Dade-the state’s most populous-completed its hand recount at almost the same time.

The process finished just hours after workers in a blazingly fluorescent-lighted Broward County warehouse began poring over thousands of ballots as part of an unprecedented statewide hand recount in an election plagued by mechanical malfunctions, missed deadlines and lawsuits.

The hand recount follows an error-plagued statewide machine recount that appears to have settled Florida’s closely watched gubernatorial race, with President Trump’s favored candidate, Ron DeSantis, R, retaining his lead over Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, D, who has refused to concede.

But the machine recount, which ended Thursday, did not produce a definitive result in Florida’s all-important U.S. Senate race. In that contest, Sen. Bill Nelson, D, a three-term incumbent, trails Gov. Rick Scott, R, by 12,603 votes, a margin that fell below the .25 percent mark that would have averted a hand recount.

The hand-recount in all 67 Florida counties focuses exclusively on tens of thousands of possible “undervotes”-in which voters appear to have not voted for any candidate-and “overvotes”-in which voters seem to have voted for more than one candidate. Miami-Dade, the state’s largest county, began its hand recount late Thursday night, hours before Broward, a Democratic bastion just to the north.

In Broward, election workers and observers gathered at 6 a.m., some dressed in shorts and T-shirts, and streamed into the Broward warehouse, taking their places at 100 plastic tables. Gloves were distributed for the delicate task of handling paper ballots.

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The complexity of the tax was immediately apparent. Canvassing board had to wrestle with ballots that had inked-in bubbles next to both Nelson’s and Scott’s names, ballots with tiny flecks of ink called “pen rests” and a ballot that had a bubble filled in, but also had an X over the bubble.

One particularly curious ballot had the bubble next to Nelson’s name filled in, but also listed a write-in candidate named “Rick Nelson.” The Broward canvassing judges decided that one should count for Nelson, even though it seemed to conflate the Democrat’s last name with the Republican’s first name. They applied a concept called the “rule of consistency,” noting that the same voter had also filled in the bubble next to gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s name while also listing Gillum as a write-in candidate.

The manual recount will also likely determine the outcome in Florida’s agriculture commissioner race, a contest that has drawn widespread attention because it pits two politicians considered to be rising stars: Nikki Fried, a Democratic medical marijuana advocate, and Republican Matt Caldwell. Going into Friday’s recount, Fried leads by 5,307 votes.

Election officials in Broward County were under extreme pressure Friday after their botched handling of the machine recount the day before. The county’s machine-based tally was rejected by Florida’s secretary of state because it was submitted two minutes past a 3 p.m. deadline. The tardy submission meant that Broward’s original vote count was used.

“Basically I just worked my a - off for nothing,” Joe D’Alessandro, election planning and development director in Broward County, said after the office had stayed open overnight to recount ballots.

The machine recounts in two other large Florida counties-Hillsborough in the Tampa area and Palm Beach on the state’s east coast-were also beset with problems. Palm Beach’s aging voting machines repeatedly overheated, and the county’s embattled elections chief, Susan Bucher, had to notify state officials that she could not complete the machine recount. In Hillsborough, election officials intentionally did not submit the results of their machine recount because the vote total fell more than 800 short of the total they had originally counted.

Looming over Friday’s vote counting were more than half-a-dozen lawsuits. Sen. Nelson’s lead attorney, Marc Elias, announced via Twitter that the campaign had sued Palm Beach County and the Florida secretary of state to require a hand count of all ballots cast in the county-rather than just the overvotes and undervotes.

Both Senate campaigns have continued to stockpile cash for the costly legal battles and staffing in the recount. Scott’s campaign announced Thursday that it had raised more than $1.4 million for its recount efforts. Nelson’s campaign estimates that it raised about $2.5 million.

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Since the recount was ordered on Saturday, protestors have been a constant presence outside Broward’s suburban vote center, where longtime elections supervisor Brenda Snipes has been the object of frequent criticisms from Republicans. The mood, at times, has been angry, with protestors hurling insults and making unsupported claims that Snipes, who has a long history of controversies, is engaged in fraud or trying to steal the election for Democrats.

Just to the north in Palm Beach County, the scene has been more placid. Republicans and Democrats set up separate circles of folding camping chairs while waiting through long lulls in the vote counting caused by malfunctioning machines. One Republican arrived with his golf clubs. Two long tables held an array of snacks, as if it were a country picnic, rather than a hotly disputed recount.

They’ve been through this before, of course. During the 2000 presidential election, Palm Beach was one of the focal points of the Bush vs. Gore recount battles. It was disparaged for its poorly designed “butterfly ballot,” which some said led them to cast votes for the wrong candidate. Now the talk in the county is all about machines that should have worked but didn’t.

“It’s like deja vu all over again,” said Iris Drazen, a Democratic observer.

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