The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nelson’s chance at win in Florida Senate race dwindles as key counties complete hand 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. — Sen. Bill Nelson was left with almost no chance of pulling off a comeback to retain his seat Friday after Florida’s two largest counties completed hand recounts that failed to generate the big vote bump the incumbent Democrat needed.

Nelson’s underwhelming performances in the recounts in ­Miami-Dade County and the Democratic stronghold of Broward County, along with three courtroom setbacks, make it almost impossible for the three-term senator and former astronaut to overcome a deficit of more than 12,000 votes in his reelection bid against Gov. Rick Scott (R). The recounts set the stage for a likely Scott victory that would strengthen Republican control of the U.S. Senate and give the nation’s third-most-populous state two GOP senators. Unless something unforeseen occurs, Democratic insiders expect Nelson to concede as early as this weekend ahead of the results being certified Tuesday.

Election officials in Palm Beach County were not expected to release their recount tallies until Sunday.

In Miami-Dade County, Nelson gained only 181 votes in the manual recount, according to a spokesman for the county’s elections office. But the results in heavily Democratic Broward, just to the north, were even more damaging.

Broward officials reported Friday that they had recorded more than 30,000 “undervote” ballots, in which no candidate appeared to be selected. Going into the manual recount, Nelson’s campaign had hoped that large numbers of ballots with no recorded vote in the Senate race would be revealed as votes for the Democrat once they were examined by hand. But that did not occur.

Early Saturday afternoon, Broward County canvassing board attorney Rene Harrod confirmed to The Post official numbers from the county’s manual recount in the Senate race: Of more than 32,000 ballots that were recounted, Nelson gained 410 votes and Scott gained 136 votes.

As Nelson’s campaign was receiving the results in Broward and Miami-Dade, it was also absorbing losses in three lawsuits filed by Democrats and voting rights advocates that could have benefited his campaign. Democrats lost what may have been Nelson’s final legal recourse Friday with a federal judge’s decision denying a request to accept some mail-in ballots received after Election Day.

Jacob Sanders, a Democratic consultant in St. Lucie County, said there was little question the election was over. The Nelson campaign’s push to hang on only delayed the reckoning due in a race that he says Democrats should have won.

“People are not happy that the blue wave hit the rest of the country and missed Florida. People are looking around and saying, ‘What happened?’ ” Sanders said. “The recount was a really good way to make people stop asking. There’s going to be a reckoning now.”

The hand recount followed an error-ridden statewide machine recount that appears to have settled Florida’s closely watched gubernatorial race, with President Trump’s favored candidate, Ron DeSantis (R), retaining his lead over Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D). However, the first recount yielded no definitive result in the Senate race, in which the candidates were separated by less than the 0.25 percent that would have averted a hand recount.

In key counties Friday, manual recounts were finished with startling speed. Broward, which had stumbled through the machine recount, rolled through the state-mandated hand recount in just two hours Friday morning with only minimal arguments from party lawyers and no major controversies. The recount was completed so quickly that workers were sent home before lunch.

Joe D’Alessandro, the elections director for Broward, described the county’s 30,000-plus undervotes as typical. However, Broward accounted for nearly half the state’s total in the Senate race. And the figure was higher than the 21,969 undervotes in the lower-profile agriculture commissioner race on the same ballot.

Allies of Nelson complained about the ballot design in Broward County because the Senate race was placed below a set of instructions and might not have been noticed by some voters.

Broward election officials were under extreme pressure Friday after their botched handling of the machine recount the day before. The county’s machine-based tally was rejected by Florida’s secretary of state because it was submitted two minutes past a 3 p.m. deadline. The tardy submission meant Broward’s original vote count was used.

In Broward on Friday, election workers and observers gathered at 6 a.m. and were given gloves for the delicate job of handling paper ballots.

The canvassing board had to wrestle with ballots that had inked-in bubbles next to both Nelson’s and Scott’s names, ballots with tiny flecks of ink called “pen rests,” and a ballot that had a bubble filled in but also had an X over the bubble.

One particularly curious ballot had the bubble next to Nelson’s name filled in, but also listed a write-in candidate named “Rick Nelson.” The Broward canvassing judges decided that one should count for Nelson, even though it seemed to conflate the Democrat’s last name with the Republican’s first name. They applied a concept called the “rule of consistency,” noting that the same voter had also filled in the bubble next to gubernatorial candidate Gillum’s name while also listing Gillum as a write-in candidate.

The manual recount will also probably determine the outcome in Florida’s agriculture commissioner race, a contest that has drawn widespread attention because it pits two politicians considered rising stars: Nikki Fried, a Democratic medical-marijuana advocate, and Republican Matt Caldwell . Entering Friday’s recount, Fried led by 5,307 votes.

A federal judge in Tallahassee ruled late Thursday against Democratic efforts to change Florida’s recounting rules. The suit, filed by Nelson and national Democratic leaders, sought to lift two rules that dictate when unclear ballot markings may be counted.

Judge Mark Walker of the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee also ruled late Thursday against the League of Women Voters, which had sued to force Scott to recuse himself from overseeing the state’s administration of the election in his official capacity as governor. However, Walker also dinged Scott for “toeing the line” between “imprudent campaign-trail rhetoric” and “problematic state action.”

Since the recount was ordered last Saturday, protesters have been a constant presence outside Broward’s suburban vote center, where longtime elections supervisor Brenda C. Snipes has been the object of frequent criticism from Republicans. In Palm Beach County, the scene has been more placid, with Republicans and Democrats arrayed in circles of camping chairs. One Republican arrived with his golf clubs.

They’ve been through this before, of course. During the 2000 presidential election, Palm Beach was one of the focal points of the Bush vs. Gore recount battles. It was disparaged for its poorly designed “butterfly ballot,” which some said led them to cast votes for the wrong candidate. Now the talk in the county is all about machines that should have worked — but didn’t.

Gardner reported from Fort Lauderdale. Beth Reinhard in Fort Lauderdale, Lori Rozsa in Riviera Beach, Fla., Sean Sullivan in Tallahassee and Amy B Wang in Washington contributed to this report.