Judge sides with Rick Scott campaign, orders Broward election officials to release records

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida is once again at the center of election controversy, but this year there are no hanging chads or butterfly ballots like in 2000. And no angry mobs in suits — at least not yet.

The deeply purple state will learn Saturday whether there will be recounts in the bitter and tight U.S. Senate race between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson; and in the governor’s race between former Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum.

The state’s recount procedures have been revised since Florida held the country hostage for a month 18 years ago, when George W. Bush edged Al Gore for the presidency. Among other things, the infamous punch-card ballots are no longer.

Yet, Scott and President Donald Trump on Friday alleged fraud without evidence, even as the often-laborious process of reviewing ballots in a close race continued ahead of the Saturday noon deadline. Both Scott and Nelson sought to get the courts to intervene.

Scott said “unethical liberals” were trying to steal the election in Democratic strongholds of Broward and Palm Beach County. He suggested something was awry because vote-counters were taking longer there than in other jurisdictions, and his thin lead has kept narrowing since Election Night. On Friday, he led by 0.21 percentage point, low enough to require a recount.

Nelson lawyer Mar Elias said Scott was using his official position to try to influence the election.

“He himself said that as ballots are being counted, it is tightening. Then he made some veiled threat or suggestion that he was somehow going to involve law enforcement,” Elias said. This is not a third world dictatorship. We do not let people seize ballots when they think they’re losing.”

A recount is mandatory if the winning candidate’s margin is less than 0.5 percentage points when the first unofficial count is verified Saturday by Florida’s secretary of state. And if the margin is less than 0.25 percent, the recount must be done by hand.

In Washington, Trump took Scott’s side, telling reporters that the federal government could get involved and adding: “all of the sudden they are finding votes out of nowhere.”

“What’s going on in Florida is a disgrace,” he said.

While the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said there had been no allegations of fraud, Scott asked — but did not order — the agency to investigate the counties’ elections departments. A spokeswoman for the agency said there were no credible allegations of fraud, therefore no active investigation.

The governor, meanwhile, filed lawsuits in both counties seeking more information on how their ballots were being tallied. Nelson filed his own federal lawsuit Friday, seeking to postpone the Saturday deadline to submit unofficial election results.

A judge on Friday sided with Scott, and ordered Broward County’s election supervisor to release the voter information sought by the governor by 7 p.m. on Friday.

The ruling came as the Broward Canvassing Board met to review ballots that had been initially deemed ineligible. Lawyers from the campaigns, journalists and citizens crowded into a room to observe the proceedings.

Broward County has a troubled election history, Its county’s election supervisor, Brenda Snipes, has been at the center of several controversies, including one 2016 case in which her office destroyed physical ballots but kept digital copies. A judge ruled that the law had been violated.

In Riviera Beach, the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board met Friday morning to review “anomalous” ballots not yet counted because of irregularities that prevented a machine-reading. Those included instances where a voter might have over-voted, trying to cross out a choice and indicating a preferred one with an arrow.

In the race for governor, DeSantis was leading by 0.47 percentage points. While that margin, if it holds, would require a recount, DeSantis has mostly stayed out of the fray, saying he was working on plans for taking office in January. Gillum, who had conceded Tuesday night before DeSantis’ margin narrowed, now says his campaign is preparing for a recount.

A third state-wide race that could go to a recount — the agriculture commissioner race between Democrat Nikki Fried and Republican Matt Caldwell — is the tightest of all, with Fried holding a 483-vote lead — a margin of 0.006 percent.

In 2000, Broward and Palm Beach each played central roles in the Bush-Gore race.

At the time, both counties used punch card ballots — voters poked out chads, leaving tiny holes in their ballots representing their candidates. Some didn’t press hard enough, leaving hanging or dimpled chads that had to be examined by hand, a long and tiresome process.

Palm Beach also was home to the infamous “butterfly ballot” that many Democrats believe cost Gore the election. An election official’s attempt to make the candidate’s names bigger and easier to read for senior citizens resulted in them being listed in two columns instead of one. Analysts later said the new redesign may have confused voters and probably cost Gore votes.

As for the angry mobs in suits: In late November 2000, Republican operatives in suits stormed the Miami-Dade canvassing board’s meeting, causing the members to permanently stop their recount, even after police officers restored order. The melee became known as “The Brooks Brothers Riot.”

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