Democrats and Republicans offer dueling narratives in recount as Thursday deadline nears

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Demonstrators gather Wednesday outside the Broward County elections office where workers are recounting ballots. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP)

LAUDERHILL, Fla. – Florida Democrats stood outside the Broward County elections office Wednesday afternoon in 90-degree heat, demanding that the state’s recount go forward, while a handful of Republican protesters heckled them.

“You would expect everyone, regardless of party, to do the same, to fight to make sure everyone’s vote is counted. We must count every vote,” said state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat who represents southeast Broward County.

Democrats beside Jones held signs that said, “Little Marco is Afraid of counting our VOTES,” and “Trump, Scott, Rubio Afraid of Democracy,” referring to Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Rick Scott, and President Donald Trump, who have said without evidence that Democrats are trying to use subterfuge to tilt the Florida election in their favor.

As Jones spoke, a small group of Republicans tried to drown him out with a small bullhorn, chanting “stop the steal!” over and over.

It was one of the few moments of color outside the Broward elections office on an otherwise quiet day, though the police presence was bulked up in anticipation of a deadline Thursday that will determine whether recounts in the U.S. Senate race and gubernatorial election move to a second stage of a hand recount.

The Senate race, along with a contest for agriculture commissioner, are both likely to head into a hand recount, which is mandated under state law for any race where the difference between two candidates is less than 0.25 percent.

Most ballots cast by voters have already been counted by machine tally, and a hand recount takes a smaller number of ballots that were read by the machine as showing no vote in a race, or more votes than were allowed. That second category, the overvote, sometimes happens when a voter starts to fill in a bubble for one candidate and then either changes their mind or realizes they are shading in the wrong circle, and fills in the other bubble.

A Florida TV reporter tweeted out a photo of a ballot that was read as an overvote by machines in Manatee County. If and when elections head to a hand recount, after the 3 p.m. deadline for the machine recount on Thursday, each party will need to have volunteers at every county office to observe the handling of each overvote and undervote ballot, and to speak up if they think a ballot represents a vote for their candidate. Those contested ballots will then be considered by each county’s canvassing board — “a body made up of the local supervisor of elections, a county court judge and the chair of the board of county commissioners” — with a noon deadline on Sunday for that process.

But Broward will be a focus, since it is the second-most populous county in the state after Miami-Dade and a Democratic stronghold. If Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democratic incumbent, has any hope of making up the 12,562-vote lead that Scott, the current governor, has over him, it will be in Broward.

There were 34,051 ballots the machine scanners counted as voting in the gubernatorial election, but not for the Senate race, and 21,097 of those were in Broward. It’s not yet known how many votes during the recount in Broward have actually been set aside for a hand recount. On Wednesday, a Broward County official ushered a Yahoo News reporter down a hall to where a sheriff’s deputy stood guard in front of a locked gate, behind which were 16 boxes of under- and overvotes.

Palm Beach County is another trouble spot, both because it is a Democrat-heavy area but also because elections officials there are having the most trouble meeting the Thursday deadline and may not finish their machine recount in time.

But many Democrats admit that the odds are long that a hand recount will change the result. Only three times in 26 major races that went through a recount process since 2000 has there been a changed outcome. But Democrats insist that a recount is important to show that voters can have confidence in their electoral system and that they have a voice in government.

“Will it change [the outcome]? Probably not,” Jones told Yahoo News. “But at least it was done the right way to show people that they can have faith in the process.”

Steve Schale, a veteran Democratic operative in the state, agreed that it’s a long shot for Nelson. But, he said, “the conspiracy theories manage to find their way around both sides, and so I think there’s an element of just double checking the math.”

“At least it will make it easier for all of us to maintain some sanity in this conversation going forward,” Schale said.

Sen. Bill Nelson speaks about the Florida election in Washington on Wednesday, alongside Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. (Photo: Al Drago/Reuters)

But Republicans on Wednesday began suggesting a more political motive that Democrats might have for their recount push. A series of legal challenges by Nelson’s campaign seeks to lower thresholds for counting votes. One suit, for example, seeks to extend the deadline of the recount.

Republicans, who had spent much of the last week accusing Democrats of fraud and dirty tricks, without any specific evidence for such claims, have altered their messaging to say that the recount effort is about making it easier for more votes to be counted in the 2020 presidential election.

“They know they lost. They know that Rick Scott is the Senator-elect. They don’t care, because this isn’t about 2018 and this isn’t about Bill Nelson,” Chris Hartline, a spokesman for Scott’s campaign, said in a statement. “This is about 2020.

Democrats, Hartline said, are “working overtime to change Florida’s election laws so they can try to win a presidential election two years from now.”

Amid all the drama over the Senate seat that will affect the size of the Republican majority in Washington, the around-the-clock recount was taking its toll on elections office workers and volunteers in county offices who have spent much of the last week working on this.

Although the race has not yet been called, Rick Scott of Florida (right) posed for a photo Thursday in Washington with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (second from right) and, from left, Republican Sens.-elect Mitt Romney of Utah, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“I just can’t wait until this is all over,” said one Broward County employee to another during a smoke break outside, under the arches of a giant strip mall. The Broward County office is situated next to a Goodwill Superstore and a Winn Dixie grocery store.

Inside the elections office, Democratic volunteers wondered whether they should ask volunteers to come in for four-hour shifts or eight-hour shifts, if Broward County relented on its demand that volunteers for the hand recount serve 12-hour shifts. That kind of requirement would make it harder to recruit people to sit and perform the mind-numbing duty of watching officials examine undervotes and overvotes.

Barbra Stern, a volunteer attorney who was in the Broward office, said the long days and early mornings were wearing her down.

“I’m auditioning for a part in ‘The Walking Dead,’” Stern said, referring to the popular TV show about a zombie apocalypse.

Employees at the Broward County elections office recount ballots Wednesday in Lauderhill, Fla. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP)

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