Florida, America’s most notorious swing state, is headed for a recount in its major statewide elections for both the Senate and the governorship, where Republicans are narrowly leading.
The races between Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Bill Nelson for US Senate and between Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum for governor remain too close to call after Tuesday’s election. Under Florida state law, a machine recount is triggered if the margin of victory is equal or less than 0.5 percent, while a manual recount is triggered if it’s less than 0.25 percent.
All counties had until midday Saturday to report unofficial vote counts. Contentious last-minute tallies from Palm Beach and Broward counties put Nelson within 12,562 votes, or 0.15 percent of Scott’s lead, and Gillum within 33,684 votes, or 0.41 percent of DeSantis — precipitating a a manual recount for the Senate and machine recount for governor.
The machine recount is due at 3 pm on Thursday, but could trigger a manual recount of its own if the new margin is less than 0.25 percent. Manual recounts are due at 12 pm on Sunday Nov 18.
“At the end of this process Sen. Nelson is going to prevail,” Marc Elias, Nelson’s campaign lawyer, said Thursday on a press call. “I am very measured in how I treat what I say. When I say it is currently a jump ball … I mean that.”
Gillum had already conceded to DeSantis, but withdrew it Saturday, hours after Florida’s secretary of state announced that the gubernatorial election is going to a recount as well. At any rate, a concession speech isn’t legally binding, so if the recount goes Gillum’s way, he can just take it back.
The stakes for both outcomes are high, given strikingly contrasting visions for the state and the country — and that Republicans have a bare 51-majority in the Senate (one they would expand if Scott wins). Whatever happens in Florida could have huge national consequences.
The Florida elections are very close — and got even closer as votes came in
Elections in Florida are almost always very close. And this year, even in a midterm cycle, is no different.
While the early results seemed to favor Democrats, Republicans, like in 2016, showed their might throughout the night and gained a very narrow lead early Wednesday morning. But not all the votes had been counted, even as the end of the week drew near. That was a good sign for Nelson and Gillum, who saw their vote totals grow as more votes came in from the populous southeastern parts of the state.
In Broward County, the second-most-populous county in southeastern Florida that covers part of the Miami metropolitan area, Nelson currently has won 69 percent of the votes and Gillum has won 68 percent, each contributing over 400,000 votes to their total tallies. Those statewide totals have only grown as more absentee, early and Election-Day votes were counted, and could change more during the recounts.
The narrowing margins have fueled rumors and partisan anger. Activists in Miami-Dade County circulated photos they said showed boxes of undelivered ballots stacked inside a mail distribution center. And Republicans, including President Donald Trump and Scott, have claimed — without evidence — that voter fraud is responsible for Democrats’ growing vote tallies. Scott even went so far as to request that the state investigate; one day later, Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement said it had received “no allegations of criminal activity.”
Trump continued to cast doubt on the legally mandated recount process Saturday, tweeting from Paris that he was “watching closely” because Democrats were trying to “STEAL two big elections in Florida.”
Trying to STEAL two big elections in Florida! We are watching closely!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2018
But Democrats are prepared for the long haul here — even Gillum, who gave a teary concession speech on Tuesday night.
“We are committed to ensuring every single vote in Florida is counted,” his campaign has since said.
Meanwhile, DeSantis, who claimed victory in the governor’s race, is already acting like the presumptive nominee, appointing a transition team.
What a recount actually means for the Florida races
Plainly, a recount means that every vote cast will be retabulated. In Florida, if the margin of victory is 0.5 percent or less, a machine recount is ordered. If that margin is 0.25 percent or less, the state will trigger a manual recount, where the “over votes” and “under votes” are counted by hand.
This matters, particularly in the Senate race. For example, in Broward County, of the 714,859 people who turned in ballots, only 682,453 voted in the Senate race, according to the current count — less than almost every other statewide race on the ballot. Broward County is a Democratic stronghold in Florida.
Why there have been so many “under votes” in Broward County remains a mystery. Some have said it’s because of how the ballot is formatted, putting the Senate race on the bottom of the page under a long block of voting instructions. But Nelson’s lawyer thinks it’s a machine error that would be rectified with a hand recount.
A recount also means that provisional and overseas absentee ballots — all of which are typically counted after Election Day — are counted, a process that can at times take more than a week.
This is where the process gets tricky.
There are always mail-in ballots and provisional ballots that aren’t counted — due to a lack of ID or matching address — that can be counted if they are rechecked. Typically, voters are notified of errors and have to sign an affidavit “curing” the mistakes before Election Day. But there are always ballots turned in on Election Day that can’t be re-checked, and people that cast provisional ballots.
According to Daniel Smith, a political scientist with the University of Florida and an election watcher, of the mail ballots returned on Election Day, more than 13,000 had issues.
My database yesterday revealed that of the 126k VBMs ‘returned’ on Election Day (in FL, VBMs (except overseas) must be received by SOEs by 7pm on Election Day), over 13.4k had problems.
— daniel a. smith (@electionsmith) November 8, 2018
Voters had until 5 pm Eastern time Thursday to make sure their vote counted, or “cure” their votes of any errors, and county supervisors had to submit the results from provisional ballots by Saturday.
In a recount, the latter deadline could change.
Recounts rarely change election results. Then again, sometimes they do.
For most election watchers, the idea of a Florida recount gives Democrats flashbacks to the 2000 presidential election, when George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore by 537 votes in Florida after a partial recount that was ultimately halted by the Supreme Court. One report after the race found that if the entire state had had a thorough recount under certain rules, Gore likely would have won.
That was a highly unique case. That said, it’s also unusual for a recount to change the final results of an election.
As FiveThirtyEight reported in 2016, between 2000 and 2015, there have been 27 recounts in statewide general elections, only three of which actually changed the final result:
But that doesn’t mean these races in Florida aren’t close enough to become part of that statistic. It’s worth noting that in 2016, Elias, currently Nelson’s elections lawyer, was general counsel on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, when he said that Clinton’s chance of winning through recounts was next to none.
“The number of votes separating Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the closest of these states — Michigan — well exceeds the largest margin ever overcome in a recount,” he said then.
On Thursday, Elias had a very different tone; he told reporters he was “confident” Nelson would win.