Saturday, 26 Nov 2022

Florida’s Recount Nears End. But a ‘Significant Number’ of Votes Could Remain Uncounted

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. — Florida was scheduled to wrap up a machine recount of its contested election Thursday afternoon, but officials in Palm Beach County said their tabulation equipment came up short “a significant number” of ballots in the final Senate tally, making it nearly impossible for the county to meet the afternoon deadline.

The race for governor, which has a wider margin, could be decided on Thursday, even as a federal judge ruled that voters whose mailed ballots were rejected because of mismatched signatures should be given a few days to rectify their ballots.

With Palm Beach County unlikely to produce a final tally in time, lawyers held a hearing in federal court Thursday morning on a Democratic Party effort to get the recount deadlines extended. Judge Mark E. Walker of the Federal District Court in Tallahassee asked a question none of the lawyers seemed able to answer: Would it be legal to proceed with recount results that are missing one county?

“There is no constitutional right to have your vote counted a second time or a third time,” Mohammad Omar Jazil, a lawyer for the Florida secretary of state, told the court.

Florida is in the throes of a heated statewide machine recount in three important races: governor, senate and agriculture commissioner. About a dozen lawsuits have been filed in efforts to extend deadlines, count rejected mail ballots, impound equipment and other issues.

The only county that is not expected to meet Thursday’s 3 p.m. deadline is Palm Beach County, where antiquated vote-counting machines do not allow multiple races to be counted simultaneously. The county had put a priority on recounting the Senate race, which was listed first on the ballot. In that contest, Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, is ahead of the Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson, by a little more than 12,000 votes.

But the machines overheated earlier this week, creating the need to recount nearly 200,000 votes. The additional problem surfaced later, according to the Palm Beach County elections supervisor, Susan Bucher: After the mechanical failure was corrected and the machines were restarted, they apparently failed to tabulate entire boxes of votes — the totals now do not add up, Ms. Bucher said.

Ms. Bucher would not say exactly how many boxes of ballots were missing from the count.

“A little bit more than a dozen precincts lost substantial numbers,” she said.

Workers are having to look through count logs to see how many ballots are missing from each precinct, and try to figure out, based on the numbers of ballots in the box, which of them might have to be put through the machine again, she said.

Despite all the problems, most election workers in Palm Beach County did not show up for work until about 10 a.m. on Thursday. Ms. Bucher defended her decision to let her exhausted staff go home at 9 p.m. to sleep and eat. A skilled team of three workers needed to be alert on Thursday morning to try to solve the machine malfunctions, she said.

“You can’t just have anybody run this,” she said. “You can’t do this kind of work with no rest, you just can’t.”

Separately, Judge Walker ruled early Thursday that Florida’s law that allows county election officials to reject vote-by-mail and provisional ballots because voters’ signatures do not match the ones on file threatens to unconstitutionally disenfranchise thousands of voters. His order gives voters whose ballots were invalidated by signature mismatches until 5 p.m. Saturday to resolve the problems with their ballots. The new deadline would apply to a certain number of the just over 4,000 voters who were notified late that their mail-in ballots had been rejected because of a signature mismatch. Those voters will now have until Saturday to confirm their identities.

There are dozens of reasons a signature mismatch may occur, even when the individual signing is in fact the voter,” the judge wrote. “What this case comes down to is that without procedural safeguards, the use of signature matching is not reasonable and may lead to unconstitutional disenfranchisement.”

Mr. Scott’s campaign said it was filing an immediate appeal. They emphasized that the ruling applies only to a small subset of people — it is not clear precisely how many — who had received late notifications about their rejected signatures.

“We are immediately appealing this baseless decision and we are confident we will prevail in the 11th Circuit,” a spokeswoman for the Scott campaign, Lauren Schenone, said in a statement. “As we near the machine recount deadline this afternoon, it has become clear to everyone (except Bill Nelson) that Senator-elect Scott’s 12,000+ vote lead truly is ‘insurmountable.’”

Although the rejected ballots were split among party lines, with slightly more Democratic votes, they disproportionately affected young voters. Daniel A. Smith, an elections expert at the University of Florida, said 26 percent of the ballots rejected for user error belonged to people under 30, even though young voters constituted only about 7 percent of those who voted by mail.

Mr. Smith’s tabulations show the number of ballots rejected for signature or other user error problems at 10,000, more than double the preliminary figures the state provided to the federal court.

“It’s not like nobody could see this coming,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which this year commissioned Mr. Smith to conduct a study on various problems with mail-in voting.

The Scott campaign lost a separate legal bid in Broward County, where lawyers asked a court to order the county to stop counting ballots that had not been counted in time for Saturday’s initial deadline for vote results.

“We are very hopeful that any future attempts to stop the counting of timely ballots by lawful voters will take heed,” said Myrna Perez, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice, which represented the League of Women Voters and Common Cause in successfully contesting that case.

Mr. Nelson filed another suit on Thursday, this one challenging the decision by an elections supervisor in hurricane-damaged Bay County to accept a handful of ballots that had been submitted by fax and email.

Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor who is trailing in the race for governor, was not expected to recover the more than 30,000 votes he would need to beat Ron DeSantis, a former Republican congressman, when machine recount results are released Thursday afternoon.

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.

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