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Florida recount: DeSantis looks certain to win governor’s race; Senate contest goes to a manual recount

Florida election officials on Nov. 15, 2018, ordered a hand recount of ballots in a closely fought U.S. Senate race. (Video: Reuters)

LAUDERHILL, Fla. — Ron DeSantis emerged from a machine recount Thursday all but certain to become Florida’s next governor while Gov. Rick Scott (R) maintained a narrow lead in the state’s closely watched Senate race even as that contest goes to a manual count.

The Senate battle, in which Scott is seeking to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson (D), enters a phase reminiscent of the state’s 2000 presidential recount — in which local elections officials will examine tens of thousands of ballots that may not have been filled out or tallied correctly to assess voters’ intentions.

The process was triggered because Scott’s lead, 12,603 votes out of more than 8 million cast, remained within the 0.25 percent legal threshold for a manual recount, which must be completed by noon Sunday.

That narrow margin appeared too much for Nelson to overcome. Scott called for Nelson to bow out as Nelson’s attorney expressed confidence that the second recount, plus court cases, would let Nelson overtake Scott.

Stacks of ballots were recounted by machines Nov. 13 in Broward County, Fla., for the Senate race between Gov. Rick Scott (R) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D). (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

“It’s never been our view that there was going to be one silver bullet that was going to change the margin in this race,” Nelson’s lead recount attorney, Marc Elias, said on a call with reporters. The hand count, he added, “is what we’ve been seeking all along.”

The big winner of the day appeared to be DeSantis, whose lead over Democrat Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, remained wide enough to avoid a manual recount. His victory is set to be certified early next week.

DeSantis’s ascent would represent a major victory for President Trump, who handpicked the congressman when he was an underdog in the GOP primary and headlined two rallies in Florida in the campaign’s closing days.

DeSantis aligned himself closely with the president, airing a TV ad in which he was seen reading “The Art of the Deal” to one of his children, and as governor would be in a strong position to help Trump’s reelection campaign in the country’s biggest swing state.

DeSantis said in a statement that he was focused on his transition to governor and invited Gillum to meet with him.

“Campaigns of ideas must give way to governing and bringing people together to secure Florida’s future. With the campaign now over, that’s where all of my focus will be,” DeSantis said.

Gillum refused to concede, saying in a statement that “there are tens of thousands of votes that have yet to be counted.”

Also going to a hand recount is the race for state agriculture commissioner, which has emerged as a potential bright spot for Democrats. The party’s nominee, Nikki Fried, a medical marijuana advocate who also promised to tighten that agency’s processing of concealed weapons permits, holds a lead of 5,307 votes over Republican Matt Caldwell.

The path to this new stage of the recount was rocky, as mechanical errors plagued the machine tally in several large counties, contentious legal disputes raised questions about the path forward, and the Scott and Nelson campaigns traded attacks.

Undergirding the fight has been a steady stream of attacks, claims and counterclaims — some led by Trump, who has accused the Democrats and the top elections official in heavily Democratic Broward County of fraud.

“An honest vote count is no longer possible — ballots massively infected,” Trump tweeted this week.

The scrutiny of the state’s elections system intensified Thursday when three of the state’s biggest counties — Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough — failed to get new counts to the state by the 3 p.m. deadline and were required to stick with their pre-recount totals.

Workers in those counties saw days of marathon work prove fruitless.

“Basically I just worked my a — off for nothing,” Joe D’Alessandro, election planning and development director in Broward County, said after the office had stayed open overnight to recount ballots.

Meanwhile, Republicans seized on reports that at least four Democratic voters had been given forms with the wrong deadline to fix ballots that had been flagged as having issues. The date on the form was after the actual deadline, so it’s not clear how using the altered form benefited Democrats.

The state Democratic Party said in a statement that it has hired “an independent investigator to review the issues at hand.”

Nelson appeared to score a legal victory early Thursday, when U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker ruled that thousands of voters across the state have until Saturday to resolve issues with signatures on mail-in and provisional ballots and get their previously rejected votes counted.

But even as a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit denied Scott’s request to stop Walker’s ruling from taking effect, it was clear the decision was not enough to make up Nelson’s deficit.

Nevertheless, the Senate recount was expected to be contentious — as both sides see the legal rulings laying the groundwork for a potentially tight presidential vote in 2020.

Voting rights advocates cited the signature ruling — as well as another in Broward County denying Scott’s request to halt the counting — as positive steps for voters. In the Broward ruling, the judge called for the count to go on because there is recourse for campaigns to challenge votes they believe are ineligible.

Both Senate campaigns have continued to stockpile cash for the costly legal battles and staffing in the recount. Scott’s campaign announced Thursday that it had raised more than $1.4 million for its recount efforts. Nelson’s campaign estimates that it raised about $2.5 million.

The hand count in Broward probably will capture much of the attention. There will be 100 tables set up with two election workers, two campaign representatives and two party representatives at each, according to instructions distributed by election officials. Only the election workers are allowed to handle ballots, while wearing gloves.

The recount is scheduled for 11-hour days Friday and Saturday, with two 30-minute breaks each day.

Reinhard reported from Lauderhill, Fla., Sullivan reported from Tallahassee, Gardner reported from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Rozsa reported from Palm Beach, Fla.