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Friday, November 16, 2018
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Recount confirms it’s Governor-elect Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis

For the second time, Ron DeSantis can declare victory in the 2018 Florida governor’s race.

The results of a state-ordered machine recount of the Nov. 6 election between DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum were released Thursday, showing the former Republican congressman from Ponte Vedra Beach maintained a nearly 34,000-vote lead over his rival, according to the state Division of Elections.

DeSantis, who is slated to become governor on Jan. 8, only lost one vote from his lead in unofficial results that triggered the machine recount. Such recounts are required when margins between candidates are 0.5 percent or less.

The recount gave DeSantis a 33,683-vote lead, compared to a 33,684-vote margin in the tally of unofficial results released Saturday. DeSantis maintained a 0.41 percent margin over Gillum, with 49.59 percent of the vote to Gillum’s 49.18, the recount showed.

“Those returns remain clear and unambiguous, just as they were on election night, and at every point throughout this process,” DeSantis said in a statement. “I remain humbled by your support and the great honor the people of Florida have shown me as I prepare to serve as your next governor.”

However, Gillum, who conceded the race on election night but later retracted his concession as the vote margin narrowed, indicated he is not ready to give up on the race.

“A vote denied is justice denied — the state of Florida must count every legally cast vote. As today’s unofficial reports and recent court proceedings make clear, there are tens of thousands of votes that have yet to be counted,” Gillum said in a statement. “It is not over until every legally casted vote is counted.”

But unlike races for the U.S. Senate and state agriculture commissioner, which are headed for statewide manual recounts because the victory margins were less than 0.25 percent, the major vote counting in the governor’s race is over.

County elections officials are scheduled to file their official returns to the state by noon on Sunday, with the state Elections Canvassing Commission meeting Tuesday to certify the results.

A ruling Thursday by a federal judge leaves open the possibility of more votes in the governor’s race. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued an order giving potentially thousands of Florida voters a chance to fix their ballots by this weekend, if they were rejected because of mismatched signatures.

But Walker rejected a request from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is trailing Gov. Rick Scott by about 12,600 votes in their Senate race, to extend the recount deadlines. Several counties reported they were unable to complete the machine recounts by the 3 p.m. Thursday deadline, including Palm Beach and Broward counties.

As of Thursday, Gillum had not filed any lawsuits contesting the election.

However, his lawyer, Barry Richard, told MSNBC earlier in the week that Gillum was “reviewing his options” on a lawsuit, expressing concern that the election showed that Florida’s laws are impacting “the fundamental right to vote.”

“He feels an obligation to ensure that votes are counted and not to sit back when we’re beginning to learn that they are not being counted for a number of reasons,” Richard told MSNBC.

Gillum would have up to 10 days following the certification of the election outcome on Tuesday to file a lawsuit contesting the results, according to state law.

In his statement, DeSantis said the election, which drew a record number of voters for a gubernatorial race, was a “vigorously debated” contest of ideas. But he said the campaign has to “give way to governing and bringing people together to secure Florida’s future.”

He extended an offer to Gillum to join him in “a conversation” about the state.

“We have both traveled the state and met Floridians from all walks of life. Sharing these experiences will, I believe, help us unite our state and build toward unity on behalf of the people of Florida,” DeSantis said.

Scott calls on Nelson to concede, Nelson preparing for manual recount

Scott Nelson

Gov. Rick Scott has once again declared victory in the U.S. Senate race and is calling on Sen. Bill Nelson to concede the election. With the machine recount complete, Scott maintained his lead over Nelson – by 12,603 votes. Because they are separated by 0.15% Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner has ordered a manual recount in the race.

That didn’t stop Scott from calling on Nelson to end the race.

“Last week, Florida voters elected me as their next U.S. Senator and now the ballots have been counted twice,” said Scott. “I am incredibly proud and humbled by the opportunity to serve Florida in Washington. Our state needs to move forward. We need to put this election behind us, and it is time for Bill Nelson to respect the will of the voters and graciously bring this process to an end rather than proceed with yet another count of the votes – which will yield the same result, and bring more embarrassment to the state that we both love and have served.”

Not surprisingly Sen. Nelson isn’t quitting. His attorney, while admitting there is no one “silver bullet” to close the gap, insists there’s still a path to victory for Nelson. 

Nelson’s camp is confident they can pickup votes on two fronts: the mail-in ballots that were thrown out because of signature mismatches and the hand recount. A federal court sided with Nelson Thursday and gave voters, who had their ballots voided because their signatures didn’t match those on file, until Saturday to correct the issue. National Republicans appealed but the Eleventh Circuit Court in Atlanta upheld the lower court ruling. 

The biggest bulk of new votes for Nelson could come in the ordered manual recount, especially in Broward County. There are at least 25,000 Broward residents who voted in the Governor’s race but didn’t vote in the Senate race. A bad ballot design has been blamed by some election observers, but Nelson’s camp believes the issue is the machinery. 

“That will not only narrow the margin but very well may reverse it entirely,” said Nelson recount attorney Mark Elias. “This is what we have been seeking all along because this is when people lay eyes on ballots and can make determinations to voter intent.” 

There are still a number of lawsuits pending, most filed by the Nelson campaign. The manual recount is supposed to conclude Sunday, but that too may be the subject of a future lawsuit. One thing is clear — who won the U.S. Senate race probably won’t be known until next week, at the earliest. 

Scott campaign calls on Democrat Party chair resignation after reports surface alleging intentional fraud

From @TerrieRizzo

It’s a back channel approach but Rick Scott’s campaign is calling for the resignation of Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo following a new report alleging intentional fraud by the Democrats. A USA Today Network story revealed a plot by the Democrats to alter a state elections form so they could use rejected ballots in their ongoing federal lawsuit. The hope, according to the report, was to have Democratic ballots counted that had been rejected for various reasons. 

“Bill Nelson can either stay silent and be in favor of organized fraud by the Democrat Party, or he can do the right thing and demand the immediate resignation of Florida’s Democrat Party Chair,” said Jackie Schutz Zeckman, Scott campaign manager.

Politico Florida first reported and then USA Today Network discovered compelling evidence that state Democrats purposely altered the date on a state elections form so that ballots rejected by county elections supervisors could be corrected and counted upon a judge’s order – even though the statutory deadline had passed. 

Florida Department of State Form
Florida Department of State form

The form in question allows voters to correct mistakes on their mail-in ballot, but it must be completed the Monday before election day. The Democrats apparently circulated an altered form that changed the date to the Thursday after the election with the intent of finding more votes for their candidates. At least four county elections supervisors reported receiving the altered form. 

altered form
altered form

USA Today Network discovered an email sent by an employee of the Democratic Party to Democratic activists attempting to organize a statewide effort to fix tossed absentee ballots with the hope that a judge would later allow the votes to be counted. 

Upon discovering the altered form, the Florida Department of State asked three United States Attorneys based in Florida to investigate. Federal prosecutors have not confirmed an investigation. 

The state Democratic Party didn’t respond for comment to the report. 

Governor Scott’s campaign, however, did respond. “News reports yesterday and today revealed that the Florida Democrat Party engaged in an illegal scheme to alter election forms and deceive voters regarding the deadlines for submitting votes. Democrats even admitted plans to fraudulently mislead voters in anticipation of including ballots submitted after the legal deadline if they could convince a judge to disregard Florida election law. Federal prosecutors are also investigating this clear example of attempt to fraudulently mislead voters by the Democrat Party in Florida,” added Schutz Beckman. 

Judge sides with Nelson, Democrats – Gives voters until 5pm Saturday to fix rejected ballots

Bill Nelson
Photo by: Giorgio Viera./EFE/Alamy Live News

Siding with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s campaign and national Democrats, a federal judge early Thursday gave voters until 5 p.m. Saturday to fix ballots that were rejected because of mismatched signatures.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker’s ruling came hours before a 3 p.m. Thursday deadline for a machine recount to be completed in the U.S. Senate race between Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, whose 56,000-vote election-night lead had dwindled to fewer than 13,000 votes when the recount was ordered.

The lawsuit focuses on part of Florida law that requires signatures on mail-in and provisional ballots to match signatures on file with elections offices. Voters whose ballots are delivered by 5 p.m. the day before an election have the opportunity to “cure” signature mismatches. But people whose mail-in ballots are received after that, or voters who cast provisional ballots on Election Day, do not.

County canvassing boards make decisions about whether signatures match, and thus whether ballots should be counted. But counties don’t have uniform regulations to govern the decisions, Democrats argued, making the process unconstitutional.

The judge agreed.

“The precise issue in this case is whether Florida’s law that allows county election officials to reject vote-by-mail and provisional ballots for mismatched signatures — with no standards, an illusory process to cure, and no process to challenge the rejection — passes constitutional muster. The answer is simple. It does not,” Walker wrote in a 34-page order.

Walker called the opportunity to fix a ballot “the last chance a vote-by-mail voter has to save their vote from being rejected and not counted.”

“Florida law provides no opportunity for voters to challenge the determination of the canvassing board that their signatures do not match, and their votes do not count,” he wrote.

In contrast, the law allows voters or candidates to challenge signatures that were accepted, Walker noted.

Scott’s campaign quickly said Thursday it was appealing Walker’s decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We are immediately appealing this baseless decision and we are confident we will prevail in the Eleventh Circuit,” Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said in a statement.

During a lengthy hearing Wednesday, Florida Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews testified that 45 counties tossed a total of 3,668 mail-in ballots and 93 provisional ballots due to mismatched signatures. Two large counties — Duval and Miami-Dade — had not reported their results, and Walker estimated about 5,000 ballots statewide would have been rejected.

There are dozens of reasons for a signature mismatch, even if the person signing is the voter, Walker 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,” the judge wrote.

Although the signature matching process is problematic, Walker said he couldn’t think of another way for canvassing boards to confirm voters’ identities.

“What makes Florida’s signature matching process even more problematic is that fact that counties have discretion to apply their own standards and procedures,” he wrote. “The only way such a scheme can be reasonable is if there are mechanisms in place to protect against arbitrary and unreasonable decisions by canvassing boards to reject ballots based on signature mismatches.”

Two years ago, Walker struck down a previous law that allowed voters who had not signed their mail-in ballot envelopes to “cure” the ballots but did not allow voters with mismatched signatures the same latitude. The law was subsequently changed.

But the judge said in court Wednesday that the law hasn’t been fixed.

“The cure period was intended to solve the inherent problems in signature matching, but the opportunity to cure has proven illusory,” he wrote in Thursday’s ruling.

Voters whose ballots were rejected were notified after it was too late to fix them, Walker wrote.

“Without this court’s intervention, these potential voters have no remedy. Rather they are simply out of luck and deprived of the right to vote. What is shocking about Florida law is that even though a voter cannot challenge a vote rejected as illegal, any voter or candidate could challenge a vote accepted as legal,” he added.

The state’s “scheme unconstitutionally burdens the fundamental right of Florida citizens to vote and have their votes counted,” he decided.

Lawyers representing Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office argued, among other things, that the plaintiffs waited too long to file the lawsuit. Walker rejected that argument.

The Republicans also argued that requiring extra ballots to be counted will unduly burden the election and disrupt election procedures, thus eroding the public’s confidence in the electoral process.

But, quoting from a federal judge in a Georgia case involving a dispute between gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp, Walker wrote that he “does not understand how assuring that all eligible voters are permitted to vote undermines the integrity of the election process.”

Any hardship endured by the state is “outweighed by the risk of unconstitutionally depriving eligible voters of their right to vote and have that vote counted,” he found.

Walker stressed that he was not requiring counties to count all of the ballots rejected for signature mismatches, but he ordered them to give “the limited number of affected voters” the opportunity to fix them before the “second unofficial results” are due at noon Sunday, following a manual recount.

So far, that involves just over 4,000 rejected ballots, Walker wrote.

“The county supervisors of elections and canvassing boards are surely up to the task,” Walker wrote.

Ballot signatures battle draws judge’s ire

vote

With seven election-related lawsuits pending, a federal judge clashed Wednesday with lawyers for state officials, national Republicans and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s campaign in a case about whether voters whose ballot signatures don’t match those on file should be able to “cure” the ballots.

“I’m being asked to rewrite the election code of the state of Florida, one piece at a time,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker groused during a five-hour hearing about the state’s process for handling mismatched signatures on mail-in and provisional ballots.

Nelson’s campaign and the Democratic Executive Committee of Florida want Walker to override a law that requires signatures on absentee and provisional ballots to match the signatures on file with election offices.

Voters whose mail-in ballots are received by 5 p.m. the day before the election have an opportunity to “cure” their ballots, by providing documentation to elections supervisors to show that they are who they claim to be.

But voters whose mail-in ballots come in after the deadline — or who cast provisional ballots on Election Day — aren’t afforded the same opportunity. And county canvassing boards, which decide whether ballots are legitimate, handle the mismatched signatures differently, lawyers for Nelson and the Democrats argued during the hearing.

Seeking a fourth term in the U.S. Senate, Nelson trails Republican Gov. Rick Scott by about 12,500 votes, down from Scott’s 56,000-vote lead on election night.

Wednesday’s hearing came before a 3 p.m. Thursday deadline for county elections offices to submit the results of machine recounts in the Senate race and the races for governor and agriculture commissioner. The Nelson-Scott contest is almost certain to fall within a 0.25 percent margin that will require a subsequent manual recount.

It was not immediately clear when Walker will rule on the ballot-signature issue. It also was unclear exactly how many ballots with mismatched signatures have been tossed out statewide. But 45 of Florida’s 67 counties have rejected 3,668 ballots due to mismatched signatures, according to Maria Matthews, director of the state Division of Elections.

Among the counties not included in the totals were highly populated Duval and Miami-Dade counties, Matthews told Walker. The final number of rejected ballots could be around 5,000, Walker estimated.

Matthews said it appeared Nelson’s team wanted “ballots to be counted without verifying the signature of the voter,” something that she warned could “create a little bit of confusion.”

“I’m concerned about the fact that counties have been operating pretty much non-stop since before the election,” she said, adding that counting the additional ballots could “increase the number of errors.”

Walker bristled when Mohammad Jazil, an attorney representing Matthews’ boss, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, asked Matthews if she, like other elections officials, was tired.

“I can assure you the most tired person in the room is me. Let’s move on,” scolded Walker, who frequently took Republican lawyers to task during the hearing.

But Nelson’s lawyer, Uzoma Nkwonta, argued that the state should delay election deadlines to give voters whose ballots were scrapped an opportunity to fix them. Official results from the election are scheduled to be certified Tuesday.

“There’s zero reason why this election and the recount and the certification of votes needs to occur on Nov. 20,” Nkwonta argued, saying that to comply with the statutory deadlines would “disenfranchise thousands of voters.”

Nkwonta told Walker that voters need more than three days to have the opportunity to fix their ballots.

“At least a couple of weeks from now, if not more, given the Thanksgiving holiday,” Nkwonta said.

But Walker questioned how involved the court should get in the elections process, noting that it was “almost laughable” that the parties in the courtroom were taking opposite stances from their positions in an Arizona recount in which Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema emerged the victor after a recount.

“Isn’t it just fundamentally a bad idea to have a federal judge essentially being asked to rewrite the entire election code as ballots are being counted?” Walker asked. “This just seems like a really bad way to do this.”

Nkwonta acknowledged the concern over the number of lawsuits.

“But these are real, live issues,” he said.

Jazil, however, said Walker’s own remedy in a similar lawsuit two years ago was working.

Siding with the Florida Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee shortly before the 2016 general election, Walker ordered Detzner to come up with a way to allow voters to “cure” ballots that were rejected. Walker called the state law “indefensible” and said it threatened to disenfranchise voters.

“The remedy seems to be working,” Jazil said. “The numbers are going down.”

But that drew the ire of Walker.

“Unless you’re one of the people who got notified in the mail seven days after the election” that their ballots had been rejected, he said.

“Sorry, bud. You’re disenfranchised,” the judge said.

But Jazil insisted that the state’s deadlines have to stick, in part because of a Jan. 8 date when the new governor and Cabinet members will be sworn in.

If the executive branch elections aren’t settled by then, the Legislature chooses the governor and Cabinet members, Jazil argued.

“I cannot think of anything greater that would undermine … people’s faith in our democracy” than to have the state officials selected by the Legislature, Jazil said.

“I think there are a great many things that are undermining people’s faith in our democracy,” Walker retorted.

The judge seemed unpersuaded by arguments that counting the additional ballots would throw the elections process into chaos, appearing to reject the Republicans’ arguments that the extra votes could spark additional recounts in races that have already been decided.

Walker asked why he shouldn’t issue an order giving voters an opportunity to cure their ballots “between now and the evening of the 17th,” or the day before manual recounts have to be completed.

“I don’t understand why that’s going to completely bring Florida to its knees,” he said.

Walker, who lectured the lawyers throughout the lengthy hearing, ripped into Deputy Attorney General Jordan Pratt for suggesting the federal judge didn’t have the authority to strike down the state law.

If that was the case, an angry Walker said, Florida schools would still be segregated.

Walker saved some of his venom for Thomas Dupree, a lawyer representing the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who agreed with the judge that the legal challenge puts Walker in an “extremely difficult position of having to sort out winners and losers” in the election.

But Walker lashed out at Dupree, who argued that Nelson and the Democrats had waited too long to file their lawsuit. That would mean “every candidate who’s going to run in 2020 needs to run to the courthouse now and dissect the statute,” Walker said.

“Every judge in the country would be, ‘Bye-bye. You’ve got no standing,’ ” Walker said.

Walker also appeared to reject Jazil’s argument that voting by mail is a “convenience” granted to voters but is not constitutionally required.

“Implicit in all this is, ‘get off your lazy butt and go vote in a polling place,’ ” Walker said.

But Jazil said the state was trying to ensure that votes are cast by people “who are who they say they are” while accommodating voters by allowing them to vote by mail.

“We’re being asked to throw a wrench into a sequential, statutory process,” Jazil said.

But Walker balked again.

“I really don’t understand how that’s going to destroy the system and bring it to its knees,” he said.

Gov. Scott to step aside from canvassing board

Gov. Rick Scott
Credit: Paul Hennessy/Alamy Live News

Gov. Rick Scott intends to recuse himself from a state panel that is scheduled next week to certify the results of Florida’s 2018 elections, the governor’s lawyer told a federal judge Wednesday.

Scott’s decision to step aside from the Elections Canvassing Commission came as he is locked in a recount in his bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Democrats have alleged that Scott has improperly tried to use his authority as governor to influence the recount, which could decide his political future.

The Republican governor held a slim lead in unofficial results from the Nov. 6 election, with the results of a machine recount due by 3 p.m. Thursday and a manual, or hand, recount expected to follow.

The heated contest is the subject of several federal lawsuits filed in recent days by Nelson and Democratic organizations. Those lawsuits focus on issues such as which ballots can be counted, when ballots have to be received by elections supervisors, the manner in which ballots are determined to be legitimate and whether deadlines for recounts should be postponed.

In another lawsuit, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause are asking Scott to recuse himself from the elections process.

But Daniel Nordby, Scott’s general counsel, told U.S. District Judge Mark Walker on Wednesday that the governor will step aside as a member of the state Elections Canvassing Commission on Tuesday, when the panel is slated to meet to certify the election results.

Nordby said state law sets out a process to determine a replacement for the governor, and that process is ongoing.

“But Gov. Scott would not intend to serve as a member of the canvassing commission, which seemed to underlie, to a great extent, the relief that was sought by the plaintiffs in the case. This, from our perspective, seems to be a non-issue,” Nordby, who represents Scott in his official capacity as governor and not as a candidate for the federal office, said during a telephone hearing.

Nordby also said Scott has little to do with the elections process, which is run by the state’s 67 county supervisors, nearly all of whom are elected.

“Neither the governor nor the state agencies under his control actually process or count any ballots,” Nordby said. “That seems … something that is not appropriately before the court.”

But Walker told Nordby he needed to respond to allegations that there is “imminent danger of him (Scott) directing others to seize machines, investigate, disrupt the recount process.”

“It seems to me that’s the nub of this case,” the judge said.

Scott’s administration also includes the Florida Department of State and its Division of Elections. Secretary of State Ken Detzner is considered Florida’s chief elections officer.

Scott saw his 56,000-vote election-night lead over Nelson dwindle to fewer than 13,000 votes, as ballots continued to be tallied in the days following the election, particularly in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

The governor has publicly blasted elections chiefs in Palm Beach and Broward counties and asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate possible wrongdoing. So far, no courts or state agencies have found any fraud.

Larry Robbins, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs during Wednesday’s hearing, told the judge the voting-rights groups want to make sure Scott ceases “any involvement directly or indirectly” with county canvassing boards, including through claims about purported fraud and suggestions that members of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement be dispatched to oversee the canvassing process.

The plaintiffs also want Scott to recuse himself from exercising his executive authority to remove or suspend county canvassing board members, comprised of supervisors of elections, judges and county commissioners.

Republican critics have demanded that Scott remove Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes following a series of mishaps in the heavily Democratic county.

Robbins said the plaintiffs also want the court to appoint a “neutral third party” to replace Scott on the elections canvassing commission, rather than a member of the Florida Cabinet.

The commission typically is made up of Scott and two members of the Cabinet. State law says that if “a member of the commission is unable to serve for any reason, the governor shall appoint a remaining member of the Cabinet. If there is a further vacancy, the remaining members of the commission shall agree on another elected official to fill the vacancy.”

The members of the Cabinet are all Republicans: Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

Walker ordered an expedited schedule for briefs to be filed in the case and scheduled a hearing that would be held at 1 p.m. Thursday if needed.

He noted that the court and lawyers are racing against next Tuesday’s certification deadline and against the Thursday deadline for machine recounts to be reported to the state. After the machine recounts, races with margins of 0.25 percent or less will go to manual recounts. Results from the manual recounts, which are expected to include the Scott-Nelson contest, are due at noon Sunday.

“As a lawyer I worked all night sometimes, and as a judge, I certainly do,” he said.

“If I had a dollar for every time I’ve missed a graduation of one of my children, or a vacation or spring break” due to a judicial emergency, Walker said, “that alone would supplement my retirement.”

Report: State asks federal prosecutors to investigate claims Democrats altered state election form

Recount

The Florida Department of State has asked federal prosecutors to investigating claims that the Florida Democratic Party may have altered a date on a state election’s form used to change information on rejected mail-in ballots. Politico Florida first reported the story. 

The Florida Department of State asked  three Florida-based U.S. Attorneys to review the altered form. The request was made November 9. 

FLA News has independently obtained the altered form, which was allegedly sent to Democratic voters whose mail-in ballot had been denied because it lacked required information. 

At question is a date change on the form. 

The original Department of State form states the deadline to receive the “cure affidavit” form is “5 p.m. on the day before the election.”

Florida Department of State Form
Florida Department of State form

The altered form changed the date to “5 p.m. on Thursday, November 8.”

altered form
altered form

The altered form was received by at least four county supervisor of elections, and according to the Politico report, included an email address – votes@FloridaDems.org – tied to the Florida Democratic Party. 

A state Democratic Party spokesperson told Politico that this is a manufactured distraction and accused Governor Scott of “trying to divert attention and resources from a smooth and successful recount.”

The judicial focus of the election recount is now centered in the federal courts. Senator Bill Nelson and his Democratic allies have filed multiple federal lawsuits. Wednesday in a federal courtroom in Tallahassee, Nelson’s legal team will ask a federal judge to nullify a state law that allows election workers to match ballot signatures with signatures on file. In a separate lawsuit, Nelson is asking a judge to invalidate a state law the places hard deadlines on recounting votes. State law gives all 67 counties until 3 PM Thursday to complete a machine recount in the U.S. Senate, Governor and Agriculture Commissioner races. Multiple counties have already completed their recount, however, at least one county – Palm Beach – has already indicated it cannot meet the deadline. 

 

 

Nelson and Democrat allies turn to courts to close the vote gap

Senator Bill Nelson
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Ballots postmarked before the polls closed at 7 p.m. on Election Day should be counted. Ballots with mismatched signatures should be counted. Ballots where voters made mistakes but where their intentions were clear should be counted. And deadlines to tally ballots in machine and manual recounts should be ignored.

Those are arguments lawyers for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, national Democrats and others are making as they have gone to federal court to try to help the long-serving lawmaker keep his Washington post.

With a machine recount underway and a manual recount looming in the close race for his U.S. Senate seat, Nelson and his supporters are racing against the clock while they try to convince a federal judge to toss Florida elections laws and nix a process laid out by Secretary of State Ken Detzner about the validation of “overvotes” in a manual recount.

Nelson trailed Republican Gov. Rick Scott by more than 56,000 votes on election night. But that deficit dwindled as ballots continued to be counted last week, especially in Democratic vote-rich Broward and Palm Beach counties.

By the time unofficial results were submitted to Detzner’s office at noon Saturday, Nelson trailed by fewer than 13,000 votes, prompting a statewide machine recount. If a similar margin comes out of the machine recount, the race will be thrown into a manual, or hand, recount.

The ballot counting has sparked lawsuits in federal and state courts, and the challenges keep on coming.

Nelson and supporters filed two more federal lawsuits Tuesday, two days before a 3 p.m. Thursday deadline for the machine recount to be completed and results to be submitted to  Detzner.

One of the lawsuits Tuesday asks the federal court to postpone the deadlines for the machine and manual recounts. Any manual recounts need to be finished by noon Sunday, with the state Elections Canvassing Commission — which includes Scott — certifying the official election results on Nov. 20.

Along with the U.S. Senate race, the races for governor, agriculture commissioner and three legislative seats are in machine recounts because of their narrow margins in unofficial results.

In arguing for abandoning the recount deadlines, Nelson’s lawyers pointed to Palm Beach County, where Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said she would not be able to complete the three statewide recounts as well as a recount in a state House race before Thursday. It also appears Bucher won’t be able to complete a manual recount for the U.S. Senate race by noon Sunday, Nelson’s lawyers wrote.

If counties can’t meet the deadlines, the most recent returns submitted to the state — following the machine recount or the election night totals — will be used.

“Given the extraordinarily compressed deadlines for completing a recount and the large number of races currently subject to machine recount, local elections officials are faced with a difficult task,” Nelson’s attorneys wrote in a 21-page complaint Tuesday.

The lawsuit focuses on a portion of Florida law that requires canvassing boards to submit official returns to Detzner no later than noon on the 12th day following the election, which is Sunday in this case.

“Where a county canvassing board remains in the midst of a manual recount, it obviously cannot truthfully make out such a certification. Florida’s ‘solution’ appears to be to disenfranchise voters whose votes remain uncounted in the name of administrative convenience,” the lawyers wrote.

In a separate lawsuit filed Tuesday, Nelson’s campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee asked a federal court to block a rule by Detzner that outlines the way ballots should be counted during a manual recount.

In a manual recount, county canvassing boards examine ballots with “undervotes” and “overvotes” that could not be tallied during a machine recount and determine which ones should be counted.

One of Detzner’s rules requires a voter to have marked all contests in the same manner for a ballot flagged as an undervote or overvote to be counted. That means that, if a voter circles a candidate in one race but uses an “x” to indicate her preference in another race, her ballot wouldn’t be counted, according to the 34-page complaint filed Tuesday.

Another rule provides that a voter who fills in a selection for a candidate, crosses it out and indicates with “magic words” that he or she made a mistake will have the ballot counted. But ballots in which voters did not give any written instructions indicating how they intended to vote will be rejected, under the rule.

The “magic words requirement operates to invalidate a vote even though the voter has clearly indicated her definite choice by crossing out, striking through, or scribbling out the erroneous choice,” Nelson’s lawyers wrote. “Without relief from this court, these voters will be deprived of their right to vote, and to have their vote counted, in the November election.”

On Monday, meanwhile, the VoteVets Action Fund, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee filed a lawsuit challenging a state law requiring mail-in ballots to be received by county elections offices by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Unlike regular mail-in ballots sent from within the U.S., ballots from overseas voters can be counted up to 10 days following the election, if they were postmarked by Election Day.

Determining the validity of ballots solely on a “received by” date, rather than pairing it with a postmark date, runs the risk of denying the right to vote based on “arbitrary factors” out of the control of Floridians, lawyers for the Nelson supporters argued in the filing.

In one case, a voter who lives in Miami-Dade County said he mailed his ballot a week before the Nov. 6 election, but learned later that his ballot had not been received in time, according to the lawyers.

In another lawsuit, Nelson’s lawyers are asking a federal judge to strike down a Florida law requiring elections supervisors to toss out provisional and mail-in ballots if voters’ signatures don’t match the ones on file.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker will hold a hearing Wednesday in Tallahassee in that case.

During a telephone hearing Tuesday involving the vote-by-mail deadlines, Walker tried to figure out how quickly he has to decide in the matter.

Trying to set deadlines for briefs to be filed, the judge took note of the fast-approaching recount deadlines, along with the final certification slated for next Tuesday.

Saying he wasn’t “in any way telegraphing to either side what my view is on any of these cases,” Walker said, “ I know one thing for sure.”

“I need to rule on an expedited basis,” he said. “If that means we don’t sleep, that’s fine. But we all need to work hard to address these matters in a timely way. The people of Florida deserve that.”

Scott’s supporters have repeatedly characterized the Democrats’ lawsuits as attempts to “steal” the election.

“When the machine recount is complete on Thursday, Nelson will have to decide if he wants to preserve his legacy and go out with dignity or if he wants to be forever remembered as the guy that liberal interest groups used in an effort to win the presidential election two years early,” Scott’s campaign spokesman Chris Hartline said in a statement.

FDLE chief ‘troubled’ by Bondi assertions

Pam Bondi
Photo by: © dpa/Alamy Live News

The commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said he is “deeply troubled” that Attorney General Pam Bondi thought he would not pursue investigations into potential criminal activity related to last week’s elections.

In a letter Monday to Bondi, Commissioner Rick Swearingen wrote that his office was working with the secretary of state and local, state and federal agencies to vet complaints and that a “preliminary inquiry” had already been initiated before Bondi ripped him on Sunday for failing to pursue undefined allegations of election “fraud.”

“I am deeply troubled that you think I have announced that FDLE would not be pursuing any investigations or inquiry into the conduct of elections officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties (or any other county) that may rise to criminal conduct during the 2018 election,” Swearingen wrote. “I have made no such announcement.”

On Sunday, Bondi’s office released a two-page letter rooted, at least in part, in Gov. Rick Scott’s controversial statement Thursday night that he was asking the FDLE to investigate irregularities in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Scott is locked in a fierce election battle to try to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, while also teaming with Bondi and other members of the state Cabinet to oversee the FDLE.

Bondi wrote in her letter Sunday to Swearingen that she was “deeply troubled” and that his “duty is not limited to investigating allegations made by the secretary of state.”

Bondi also said FDLE had pointed to a lack of a written complaint in deciding not to pursue an investigation. In his letter Monday, Swearingen chalked that up to “confusion” by the media, as state law requires a written order from the governor in cases where a state employee faces suspension or removal for misconduct.

Scott and his Republican supporters have repeatedly argued that there has been “rampant fraud” and efforts to steal the election in the two heavily-Democratic counties, charges that have been repeated in a number of lawsuits — and rebutted by Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., in a media conference call hosted Tuesday’s by Scott’s campaign, talked about ballots being counted after the election and said the Republican governor will win the Senate contest if “only the legal ballots” are counted. Otherwise the race will become “mired in corruption and deceit,” Rooney said.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday called in a tweet for Nelson to concede, as “the characters running Broward and Palm Beach voting will not be able to ‘find’ enough votes, too much spotlight on them now!”

A day earlier, Trump tweeted “that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged.”

“An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected,” Trump tweeted. “Must go with Election Night!”

On Tuesday, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Krista Marx was critical of the allegations of corruption, as she heard Scott’s request that state and local law enforcement are needed to secure voting equipment and ballots in Palm Beach County.

“Other than hearsay, there has not been any suggestion … there hasn’t been any finding by any court, or even any pleading that there’s anything untoward or that nobody is properly doing their job, that there’s anybody improperly doing their job,” Marx said.

— News Service senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.

Early recount totals show little change

recount froward
Photo credit: Alamy

Recounts wrapping up in small and mid-sized counties are showing few changes to initial results in the races for governor, U.S. Senate and agriculture commissioner.

But bigger counties still have until Thursday afternoon to complete the state-mandated recount process.

In Leon County, where elections officials completed running more than 140,000 ballots through tabulating machines Tuesday afternoon, the candidates in the major statewide races all lost several votes.

Recounted numbers in Citrus County found two additional votes each for Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, U.S. Senate candidate Rick Scott and agriculture-commissioner candidate Matt Caldwell.

In Alachua County, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s lead over Scott among county voters grew by 26 votes. Statewide, Nelson trailed Scott by 12,562 votes when unofficial results were posted Saturday from the Nov. 6 election.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, down by 33,684 in the unofficial statewide numbers, gained 12 votes in Alachua County in his race with DeSantis. And Democratic agriculture-commissioner candidate Nikki Fried, up 5,326 votes statewide on Saturday, gained 26 votes in Alachua County.

While political arguments and lawsuits have put the focus of the recount on Palm Beach and Broward counties, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said he doesn’t expect there to be “dramatic changes” in the statewide vote totals.

“That’s what I have seen borne out in most other recounts that I’ve been involved with,” Earley said. “Even in the 2000 recount, we didn’t have a lot of change, Leon County especially.”

In Leon County, Scott’s countywide total dropped three votes while Nelson’s support went down five votes. DeSantis lost five votes. Gillum lost six votes. Caldwell’s countywide number went down three. Fried lost four votes.

Earley said he expects those numbers will be made up by each candidate if a manual recount is called because of undervotes being set apart in machine counting.

In a machine recount, all ballots are fed through voting machines. Ballots with “undervotes” or “overvotes” — in which voters may have skipped races or made extra marks in races, causing their ballots to be rejected by the machines — are set aside, or “outstacked.”

If a manual recount becomes necessary, county canvassing boards examine the “outstacked” ballots.

Machine recounts were called for the three statewide races because each was within a margin of 0.5 percentage points or less when the unofficial results were posted.

County supervisors of election have until 3 p.m. Thursday to submit their machine recount numbers. Races with margins of 0.25 percentage points or less at that point will go to manual, or hand, recounts.

Florida Division of Elections spokeswoman Sarah Revell said the recount numbers won’t be posted for each county until after the Thursday deadline.

“We will post the second unofficial results all at one time on Florida Election Watch,” Revell said, referring to part of the division’s website.

Scott recount attorney Tim Cerio said that, as of Tuesday afternoon, 25 counties had completed recounting, and the process had started in all but Clay County, where 90,040 ballots were tabulated in the first unofficial totals.

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