FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida is once again at the center of election controversy, but this year there are no hanging chads or butterfly ballots like in 2000. And no angry mobs in suits — at least not yet.
The deeply purple state will learn Saturday whether there will be recounts in the bitter and tight U.S. Senate race between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson; and in the governor’s race between former Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum.
The state’s recount procedures have been revised since Florida held the country hostage for a month 18 years ago, when George W. Bush edged Al Gore for the presidency. Among other things, the infamous punch-card ballots are no longer.
Yet, Scott and President Donald Trump on Friday alleged fraud without evidence, even as the often-laborious process of reviewing ballots in a close race continued ahead of the Saturday noon deadline. Both Scott and Nelson sought to get the courts to intervene.
Scott said “unethical liberals” were trying to steal the election in Democratic strongholds of Broward and Palm Beach County. He suggested something was awry because vote-counters were taking longer there than in other jurisdictions, and his thin lead has kept narrowing since Election Night. On Friday, he led by 0.21 percentage point, low enough to require a recount.
A recount is mandatory if the winning candidate’s margin is less than 0.5 percentage points when the first unofficial count is verified Saturday by Florida’s secretary of state. And if the margin is less than 0.25 percent the recount must be done by hand.
In Washington, Trump took Scott’s side, telling reporters that the federal government could get involved and adding: “all of the sudden they are finding votes out of nowhere.”
“What’s going on in Florida is a disgrace,” he said.
While the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Friday there had been no allegations of fraud, Scott asked — but did not order — the agency to investigate the counties’ elections departments for possible fraud. A spokeswoman for the agency said there was no active investigation. The governor, meanwhile, filed lawsuits in both counties seeking more information on how their ballots were being tallied.
Nelson lawyer Mar Elias shot back at Scott for using his official position to try to influence the election.
“He himself said that as ballots are being counted, it is tightening. Then he made some veiled threat or suggestion that he was somehow going to involve law enforcement,” Elias said. This is not a third world dictatorship. We do not let people seize ballots when they think they’re losing.”
Nelson filed his own federal lawsuit Friday, seeking to postpone the Saturday deadline to submit unofficial election results.
Scott’s campaign manager Jackie Schutz Zeckman shot back: “They aim to disenfranchise law abiding Florida voters by producing ballots out of thin air until they have enough to win.
In Riviera Beach, the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board met Friday morning to review “anomalous” ballots not yet counted because of irregularities that prevented a machine-reading. Those included instances where a voter might have over-voted, trying to cross out a choice and indicating a preferred one with an arrow.
The Broward County Canvassing Board was to meet in the early afternoon, and about 30 Republican protesters had gathered outside by midday.
“Don’t steal our election!” they shouted in chants alternated with songs including “The Star Spangled Banner” and reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Broward County has a troubled election history and its county’s election supervisor, Brenda Snipes — an appointee of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush — has been at the center of several controversies. Among other things, a 2016 lawsuit by Tim Canova, a challenger to Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, sought to inspect physical ballots only to discover Snipes’ office had destroyed the originals but kept digital copies. Eventually a judge ruled that the law had been violated.
In the race for governor, DeSantis was leading by 0.47 percentage points. While that margin, if it holds, would require a recount, DeSantis has mostly stayed out of the fray, saying he was working on plans for taking office in January. Gillum, who had conceded Tuesday night before DeSantis’ margin narrowed, now says his campaign is preparing for a recount.
A third state-wide race that could go to a recount — the agriculture commissioner race between Democrat Nikki Fried and Republican Matt Caldwell — is the tightest of all, with Fried holding a 483-vote lead — a margin of 0.006 percent.
In 2000, Broward and Palm Beach each played central roles in the Bush-Gore race.
At the time, both counties used punch card ballots — voters poked out chads, leaving tiny holes in their ballots representing their candidates. Some didn’t press hard enough, leaving hanging or dimpled chads that had to be examined by hand, a long and tiresome process.
But Palm Beach was also the home to the infamous “butterfly ballot” that many Democrats believe cost Gore the election. The county’s then-elections supervisor, Democrat Theresa LePore, wanted to make the 10 presidential candidates’ names bigger on the ballot so senior citizens could read them. Instead of listing them in one column, she broke the names into two columns. In the left were Bush, Gore and four minor party candidates — six lines in total. On the right were five lines — four minor party candidates and a space for a write-in.
That meant there was no candidate opposite Bush, but to the right of Gore was the ultra-conservative Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, who got 3,407 votes in the county — many of them probably intended for Gore, analysts said.
As for the angry mobs in suits: In late November 2000, Republican operatives in suits stormed the Miami-Dade canvassing board’s meeting, causing the members to permanently stop their recount, even after police officers restored order. The melee became known as “The Brooks Brothers Riot.”