Prospect of another recount in Florida sparks partisan showdown

Washington Post

The razor-close Senate race in Florida erupted into outright partisan warfare Friday as Democrats pressed for a recount and Republicans - including President Donald Trump - accused local elections officials of tilting the outcome against them.

Trump and his allies offered no evidence that fraud was to blame for a diminishing GOP lead in heavily Democratic Broward County in South Florida, where the still-unfinished counting of absentee and provisional ballots has narrowed Republican Rick Scott's statewide lead to less than one-half of a percentage point.

The margin is expected to trigger a recount of ballots, which could begin as early as Saturday in counties across the state. It also has prompted vocal protests from Republicans - a dramatic shift in rhetoric since Tuesday, when Trump declared "incredible" victories across the country and stayed away from accusations of a "rigged" election despite mixed results.

Those accusations came roaring back Friday in both Florida and Arizona, where another close Senate race hangs on a slow ballot count.

"Rick Scott was up by 50,000+ votes on Election Day, now they 'found' many votes and he is only up 15,000 votes," Trump tweeted Friday about the Florida Senate race. " 'The Broward Effect.' How come they never find Republican votes?"

In a separate tweet, Trump claimed "Electoral corruption" in the Arizona Senate race, where Democrat Kyrsten Sinema has taken a slim lead over Republican Martha McSally since Tuesday.

In Florida, the ongoing canvass has produced votes for both Scott and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Bill Nelson - but more for Nelson. That didn't stop other Republicans, including Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Marco Rubio, Fla., from raising accusations of fraud.

On the ground in Broward County, protesters took to the sidewalks outside election offices in Lauderhill to demand the ouster of Brenda Snipes, the supervisor of elections, who has faced a string of accusations of mismanagement over the past decade. The scene was reminiscent of the partisan street fights that accompanied the contentious presidential recount of 2000; for three hours, about 200 people shouted and waved signs.

"Make every vote count!" Democrats yelled.

"Twice!" replied the Republicans, mockingly. The nearly constant chants mentioned Trump more than Scott, but mostly they centered on Snipes. "Lock her up!" protesters repeated hundreds of times, echoing the cry at Trump campaign rallies about Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Scott, Florida's governor, in an appearance at the governor's mansion Thursday, went so far as to suggest "rampant fraud" and called for a state law enforcement investigation, drawing criticism from Nelson that he is using the power of his office to ensure his Senate victory.

"The governor has decided to abandon the most fundamental of all rights because he fears that he will lose the election if all the votes are counted," Nelson said in a video released Friday. " ... Votes are not being found. They're being counted."

As of Friday afternoon, Scott had a lead over Nelson of just more than 16,000 votes, or 0.19 percent, according to the Associated Press. In the governor's race, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, D, trailed former congressman Ron DeSantis (R) by more than 36,000 votes, or 0.45 percent.

Under Florida law, a statewide machine recount is conducted when the margin of victory is less than 0.5 percent, and a manual recount is ordered if the margin is less than 0.25 percent.

A lawyer for Nelson, Marc Elias, said in a call with reporters Friday that the canvass underway in Broward and elsewhere in Florida is a "feature, not a flaw, of our democratic system" to ensure that all valid votes are counted. He accused Republicans of falsely claiming voter fraud simply because the margin had changed.

"The lead is just over 15,000 votes now, which seemed to cause the governor to hold an impromptu news conference to acknowledge the shrinking state of the margin," Elias said.

Both campaigns also went to court, allowing Scott to claim two quick victories Friday, when a judge ordered officials in Palm Beach County to open their canvass to public inspection, and another judge ordered Broward officials to release documents the governor had demanded.

Nelson's suit seeks to reexamine absentee and provisional ballots when signatures on the ballots don't match voter registration records. In Georgia last month, a federal judge ordered local election officials to stop throwing out ballots because of signature issues.

The Scott campaign lashed back. "Their desperation has driven them to ask the federal courts to allow voter fraud," campaign manager Jackie Schutz Zeckman said. "They are asking courts to overrule election officials and accept ballots that were not legally cast."

Reports have poured in from voters complaining that their ballots were improperly rejected; one came from Patrick Murphy, a former Democratic congressman from Palm Beach, who tweeted: "Just saw notice from @PBCounty that my absentee ballot wasn't counted due to 'invalid signature' match. Should be +1 @NelsonForSenate @AndrewGillum. Must overhaul these ridiculous barriers to voting."

In Georgia, the closely fought governor's contest has prompted Democrats to accuse Republican contender Brian Kemp of misconduct. Kemp served as secretary of state until Thursday and was a champion of new voting laws that Democrats say disenfranchised thousands of voters, most of them minorities. Supporters of Democrat Stacey Abrams scrambled Friday to force a runoff by helping voters validate their provisional ballots.

This is not the first time Broward County and Snipes, the elections supervisor there, have been at the center of ballot-counting controversies. Broward was the setting for contentious debates over "hanging chads" and other ballot irregularities that determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

During the 2004 presidential election, Snipes blamed the U.S. Postal Service for losing 58,000 absentee ballots, then later announced that only 6,000 ballots had disappeared. Postal officials said they had done nothing wrong. Then, Snipes's office dropped off 2,400 blank absentee ballots for voters at the post office on a Saturday before the election, after mail carriers were already gone for the day.

And in 2016, Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz faced a primary challenge from a Bernie Sanders-backed candidate, Tim Canova, in Florida's 23rd District. Canova sued Broward election officials and asked to inspect the physical ballots in the race. Snipes was accused of destroying the physical ballots while saving digital copies as the lawsuit was pending - a violation of a federal statute requiring that congressional ballots be saved for 22 months after an election.

"Every Floridian should be concerned there may be rampant fraud happening in Palm Beach and Broward counties, and the Broward supervisor of elections, Brenda Snipes, has a history of acting in absolute bad faith," Scott said Thursday.

Rubio said that Snipes is a "candidate for removal."

Snipes could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Burnadette Norris-Weeks, argued that vote-counting takes time in large counties such as Broward. Scott - and the media - were too hasty in declaring him the winner in the Senate race, she said.

"They are calling these races way too soon," she said.

Scott sought to raise money off the controversy, holding a 12-minute call with about 90 donors Friday afternoon during which he asked for contributions. "I am disappointed in Bill Nelson," Scott said, according to a person on the call. Scott also said it was "hard to believe they are still counting."

State law allows the governor to suspend an elections supervisor for malfeasance or incompetence and appoint a replacement. Snipes was appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, in 2003 after he ousted her predecessor.

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Jeremy Burns, said the agency had not begun an investigation in response to Scott's demand because the Department of State said there are currently no allegations of fraud. The governor has the ability to single-handedly direct an investigation by submitting a letter to the agency's director, Burns said, but he has not done so.

Each county's three-person canvassing board is required to report returns by noon Saturday. The Florida secretary of state will then determine if any races meet the threshold for machine recounts. If recounts are ordered, those tallies are due by Thursday. Then, the secretary of state will determine if any races meet the threshold for a manual recount, which is defined as "a hand recount of overvotes and undervotes set aside from the machine recount."

Those set-aside ballots - in which voters skipped a race or voted for two candidates in one race - would be the subject of the manual recount.

Rozsa reported from Lauderhill, Florida. The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan and Josh Dawsey, in Washington, contributed to this report.

First published in The Washington Post

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