Florida still recounting votes for midterm elections

Posted at 8:01 AM, Nov 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-16 11:06:51-05

The Florida Senate race is headed to a hand recount after a machine review of the initial vote kept Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson narrowly behind his challenger, Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

But even though a recount will keep Nelson in the fight for at least another few days, his odds of winning might have been further narrowed on Thursday, when the machine recount — which ended at the 3 p.m. deadline — yielded a few dozen more votes for Scott, whose lead now stands at more than 12,600, or 0.15%.

The race for governor remained outside the 0.25% margin required for a hand recount, meaning Republican former Rep. Ron DeSantis will likely be the state’s next chief executive over Democrat Andrew Gillum. The Tallahassee mayor, who picked up a single vote in the recount, revoked his concession last weekend and said on Thursday he would continue to push for all votes to be counted.

Election boards across the state have been using voting machines to recount ballots this week, with some of the larger counties working all day and through the night. When Thursday’s deadline hit, three statewide races — the contests between Nelson and Scott for Senate; Gillum and DeSantis for governor; and Republican Matt Caldwell and Democrat Nikki Fried for agriculture commissioner — were within the .5% margin required for a statewide machine recount.

Both the Senate and agricultural commissioner races are now headed to hand review of overvotes and undervotes, a more narrowly circumscribed but also potentially volatile pool of votes. These are ballots where the voter appeared to tick off more candidates than allowed (overvotes) or on which they voted for fewer candidates than allowed (undervotes).

Not all the counties met the deadline.

Palm Beach County failed to meet the recount deadline, meaning last week’s unofficial count out of the county is the one that it will take into the next phase of recounts. In Broward County, the director of elections announced they uploaded their new recount totals to the secretary of state two minutes past the deadline, resulting in the secretary of state not accepting them and instead using Broward’s first unofficial results from before the recount.

Hillsborough County said it did a full machine recount but chose to report its initial numbers, which were higher in aggregate, because the figures were so similar.

Hours before the machine recount cutoff, a federal judge in Tallahassee rejected a Democratic motion to extend the deadline beyond 3 p.m.

Nelson’s campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had argued that all recount deadlines should be lifted for however long the counties determined necessary to conclude their work.

“The Florida legislature chose to define emergency narrowly — only as an event that results or may result in substantial injury or harm to the population or substantial damage to or loss of property,” Judge Mark Walker wrote in explaining his decision. “The emergency exception does not apply in this case, where the delay is the result of outdated and malfunctioning vote-counting technology.”

Palm Beach County has been hampered repeatedly by faltering machinery and shoddy infrastructure.

Susan Bucher, the county’s supervisor of elections, told reporters on Thursday she would take “full responsibility” if the county failed — as it eventually did — to meet Thursday’s deadline.

“It was not for lack of human effort … it was so incredible, and I thank everybody who participated,” she said. Bucher had told reporters a little more than 24 hours earlier that she was in “prayer mode.” That seemed to be an upgrade on her predictions from earlier in the week, when on Sunday, hours after the recount began, she said that completing it on time would be “impossible.”

Bucher’s worries were compounded on Tuesday when the county’s old and overheated machines malfunctioned, forcing officials to start their recount of early votes from scratch. By Wednesday, the already distant hopes of an on-time finish seemed to be slipping away.

CNN observed long stretches of inaction on the floor of the cavernous facility which has been occupied by reporters, lawyers and operatives from both parties, and volunteers who have been working — when the hardware complies — day and night.

Democratic attorney Marc Elias announced new legal action on Twitter fewer than 90 minutes after the deadline passed.

“We have sued Palm Beach County and the Florida Sec of State to require a hand count of all ballots in the county due to systematic machine failure during the machine recount,” Nelson’s top recount lawyer said.

The dirty little secrets of the Florida recounts

Based on the number of lawsuits, cable news coverage and overall drama coming out of Florida at the moment, you might think that the outcomes of the state’s Senate and governor’s races are balancing on a knife’s edge — with every judge’s decision potentially making the difference between winning and losing.

The reality is, well, far from that.

Here’s the thing: While the races for governor and, especially, Senate are quite close, the most likely outcome — by far — is that the Republican candidates who are leading now will wind up winning.

The difficulty in seeing this forest through the trees of drama is based on this reality: The margins in both races are very small but only as compared to the raw number of votes cast. In terms of the sorts of historical margins that we’ve seen recounts — automatic or manual — flip, these margins are nowhere near small enough to expect that outcome.

Let’s go over the numbers first.

In the Senate race, Gov. Rick Scott (R) has 4,097,689 votes as compared to Sen. Bill Nelson’s (D) 4,085,086. That’s a margin for Scott of 12,603 votes. In the governor’s race, former Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) has 4,075,445 votes while Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has 4,041,762. That’s a 33,683-vote lead for DeSantis. Scott’s margin amounts to 0.15% of all the votes cast (8,183,652) while DeSantis’ edge is 0.41% of the 8,118,074 ballots cast in the governor’s race.

Which is a SUPER SMALL margin.

But the vote gaps in the two races — 12,000 and 33,000 — are massive when you consider the history of modern recounts.

The most recent hugely high-profile recount happened a decade ago in Minnesota between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken. The state canvassing board showed Coleman with a 206-vote lead. A recount was triggered. Almost two months later — in January 2009 — Franken had the lead by 225 votes. After a HUGE amount of legal wrangling, Franken’s final margin was finalized at 312 votes. From the beginning to the end of the process, the vote changed by 518 votes in Franken’s favor. That was 0.01% of the 2,862,451 votes cast.

Four years earlier, the Washington state governor’s race ended in a virtual tie between Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, and Republican Dino Rossi. Rossi was originally named the winner by a margin of 261 votes. A mandated machine recount narrowed Rossi’s lead to 42 votes. Gregoire, with the help of a number of national Democrats who raised money for her, funded — via the state party — a manual recount. The manual recount ended 58 days after the election, and gave Gregoire a 129-vote final margin over Rossi. The total votes changed by the series of manual and automatic recounts was 390 total votes, or 0.01% of all ballots cast.

The point here is that in the two most recent statewide recounts of a major race — for governor or Senate — the starting margin between the two candidates was less than 300 votes. That’s miles and miles away from where we are in either the Senate or governor’s race in Florida. And, as Harry Enten notes in his terrific piece on why Nelson is going to need a miracle to win, the 2004 Washington governor’s race and the 2008 Minnesota Senate race are not anomalous when it comes to recounts. Writes Harry:

“According to a FairVote database of statewide recounts from 2000 to 2015, the average recount moves the margin by 0.02 points. Nelson needs the margin to move by nearly eight times as much. … In terms of pure votes, it doesn’t look any better for Nelson. The average recount from 2000 to 2015 shifted the result by 282 votes. You don’t need to be a math wizard to know that 282 is considerably less than 12,000. The maximum change in the margin in any recount from 2000 to 2015 was 1,247 votes.”

Those facts — and the long history of recounts changing only races in which the original count was extremely narrow — get lost in the coverage of the various suits and countersuits both sides are lobbing at each other. President Donald Trump has added to the confusion by repeatedly insisting via Twitter that there is something nefarious going on in the state’s MANDATED recount.

“The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged,” tweeted Trump. “An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”

Now. History is only predictive until it’s not. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for one, seems to believe that Nelson will buck history. “When all the votes are counted in Florida, we could be just where we started at the beginning of the 115th Congress, with 48 members, even facing the worst map that we’ve ever had,” the New York Democrat insisted.

Maybe! But a victory by Nelson or Gillum, given the margins they are trailing by, would be hugely out of step with what most recounts — manual or machine — produce.