It’s been almost two decades since the Sunshine State earned its biggest election-related black eye. Who can forget the indelible image of a Palm Beach County official peering through a magnifying glass to inspect the notorious hanging chads in a contest some Democrats still contend went to the wrong man?
The nasty battle waged by the presidential candidates, their campaigns and legal teams — with Florida at the epicenter— dragged on for more than a month in 2000, before the U.S. Supreme Court finally ushered in George W. Bush as the country’s 43rd president.
Once again, Florida finds itself in the national spotlight, and once again, Florida’s chief of state is smack-dab in the middle of the controversy.
In 2000, former Gov. Jeb Bush was at the helm while his brother’s fate hung in the balance. This time, Gov. Rick Scott — who has even more control than Bush did over the Florida Department of State, which oversees elections — is in control while his own future as a U.S. Senator is on the line.
Scott, who declared himself the winner Tuesday night in his race against Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, castigated elections officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties Thursday, accusing them of employing partisan hijinks as the margin narrowed in the days following the election.
Nelson’s folks say they want each of the 8 million-plus ballots to be counted. And, they maintain, that takes time, particularly in populous South Florida counties, which also happen to be dominated by Democratic voters.
Meanwhile, lawyers are streaming into Florida and the candidates are desperately seeking assistants to monitor the goings-on in county elections offices as canvassing boards scrutinize mail-in and provisional ballots.
It’s not just the Nelson v. Scott race that’s in question and likely headed to a recount. The continuing tabulation of ballots placed the gubernatorial contest in the recount crosshairs, despite Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum’s concession to Republican Ron DeSantis on election night.
So far, the late ballots have most benefited Democrat Nikki Fried, who trailed Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell on election night in their race for Agriculture Commissioner. Fried was slightly in the lead heading into the weekend, in a race that’s recount fodder.
Former President Bill Clinton’s comments about the 2000 election may have captured the current state of affairs in Florida: “The American people have now spoken, but it’s going to take a little while to determine what they’ve said.”
Bad things in Broward?
President Donald Trump lashed out at Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, without calling her by name.
“There’s bad things have gone on in Broward County. Really bad things,” Trump told reporters, adding that Scott “easily won” the election.
“But every hour (the vote count) seems to be going down. I think people have to look at it very cautiously,” he said. “What’s going on in Florida is a disgrace. … There’s a lot of dishonesty.”
Scott was even harsher late Thursday night at a hastily called press conference, announced by his senatorial campaign but held outside the governor’s mansion.
The Republican Governor called elections supervisors in Broward and Palm Beach counties “incompetent” and part of an effort to “thwart the will of the people,” as the margin of his apparent U.S. Senate victory narrowed and moved toward a recount.
Scott’s comments came as his campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee filed a lawsuit against Snipes. The lawsuit contends her office was withholding crucial voter information and blocking access to the office.
The campaign also filed a separate lawsuit against Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, accusing her of refusing to allow Scott’s representatives to personally witness the ballot counting. The suit, filed in Palm Beach County, also accuses Bucher of keeping the county canvassing board from performing its duties.
Scott, expressing concern about “rampant fraud” in the two counties, also directed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the election offices. Broward and Palm Beach counties are Democratic strongholds, and Snipes and Bucher are Democrats.
“I am considering every single legal option available,” said Scott, who didn’t take questions from reporters. “No rag-tag group of liberal activists or lawyers from D.C. will be allowed to steal this election from the voters of this great state.”
Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Nelson, said Scott’s actions are apparently “politically motivated and borne out of desperation.”
“The goal here is to see that all the votes in Florida are counted and counted accurately,” McLaughlin said in a statement.
Marc Elias, a lawyer for Nelson, said Friday he expects the ongoing tabulation of votes to continue to narrow Scott’s razor-thin lead. Elias criticized Scott for ordering the state law-enforcement agency to investigate the South Florida elections officials.
“This is not a Third World dictatorship,” Elias told reporters on a conference call.
Elias said he expects Scott to express his views.
“But it is not appropriate for the Governor of any state to suggest that he is going to use the powers of the state as governor to interject his law enforcement authority to prevent the counting of ballots that have been lawfully cast,” especially when the governor is a candidate, Elias said.
Scott led Nelson by a spread of 56,000 votes on election night, prompting him to declare victory. But by Friday morning, the Republican’s lead had dwindled to about 15,000 votes, putting it within the range of a required hand recount.
County canvassing boards, which determine whether provisional ballots can be counted, have until noon Saturday to submit unofficial results to the state Division of Elections.
Contests with margins of 0.5 percent or less qualify for automatic machine recounts by every county elections office involved in the contest. Hand recounts are required if margins are .25 percent or less.
In addition to the U.S. Senate contest, recounts are almost certain to be needed in the state’s Agriculture-Commissioner race and three state legislative races: Senate District 18 in Hillsborough County, in which Democratic challenger Janet Cruz leads incumbent Republican Dana Young; House District 26 in Volusia County, in which Republican Elizabeth Fetterhoff is ahead of incumbent Democrat Patrick Henry; and House District 89 in Palm Beach County, where Republican Mike Caruso held the lead over Democrat Jim Bonfiglio.
Fried, who could emerge as the only Democrat to capture a statewide race, did not concede as the unofficial election results were posted Tuesday night.
“We’re confident that by Saturday, when final results are certified, our lead will have grown, and the voters’ choice in the race for agriculture commissioner will be clear,” Fried said in a statement Thursday.
But late Thursday, Caldwell campaign spokesman Brian Swensen blasted Snipes, the Broward supervisor, for “gross incompetence and potential corruption election cycle after election cycle.”
“Over the past two days, Snipes’ office has refused to give either an accurate count of outstanding ballots or where they come from, all while the Democratic candidates continue to pick up tens of thousands of new votes,” Swensen said. “Our legal team is going to pursue every option to ensure election results are counted fairly, accurately and legally. Matt Caldwell will be Florida’s next commissioner of agriculture, and the will of the voters will be upheld.”
At an election-night event on the campus of Florida A&M University, Gillum conceded the Governor’s race to DeSantis, who had the backing of Trump.
But as DeSantis’ lead narrowed and headed toward a possible machine recount, Gillum was less certain about his loss.
“I want you to know that in spite of the fact that we’re a little bit down in the numbers, we’re hopeful that every single vote will be counted in this race,” Gillum said in a Facebook live video Thursday.
Story of the week
Republican Gov. Scott declared victory over incumbent U.S. Sen. Nelson, but the Florida senatorial race — as well as races for Governor and Agriculture Commissioner — appeared headed for recounts as votes from Democrat-rich Broward and Palm Beach counties continued to be counted.
Quote of the week
“Well … Here we are again.” — Gov. Scott, speaking to reporters about delays in vote tabulation in Broward and Palm Beach counties, as his race against U.S. Sen. Nelson appeared headed to a recount.