FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Republicans are sowing skepticism about the electoral process in states with votes that are too close to call, echoing President Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud and suggesting that election officials should jettison the common practice of completing vote counts after Election Day.
Nowhere is the effort more aggressive than in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott is tapping the powers of his administration to defend his slender lead in the U.S. Senate race and accusing Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of “trying to steal an election.” Without evidence, Trump on Twitter claimed ballots were “massively infected” in Florida and said the recount should halt — though it is mandated by state law and overseas military ballots aren’t due until Friday.
What appears to be a coordinated Republican strategy to undercut post-election vote counting is also evident in New Mexico, where Rep. Yvette Herrell (R) is refusing to concede her race to Democrat Xochitl Torres Small after absentee ballots changed her status from winner to loser, and in Arizona, where the National Republican Senatorial Committee contended a county election official had been “using his position to cook the books” for Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.
Combined with accusations of voter suppression in the Georgia governor’s race, public faith in the electoral system is being put to the test.
“These public announcements are doing nothing but hyping the hysteria and lessening the credibility of our elections process and, by extension, democracy itself,” said Ion Sancho, a prominent retired elections official and political independent from Leon County, Fla.
Questions about the integrity of the elections system have cropped up in recent years as a number of states have passed laws that Republicans say weed out illegal voters and Democrats say disenfranchise eligible ones. Before his election, Trump claimed that the 2016 vote would be “rigged,” but as president he has dismissed evidence that Russians tried to influence the outcome.
This year’s midterm elections have unleashed a new level of vitriol over the results in certain closely fought races — particularly where late ballot counts have shrunk the lead of the Republican. These slower counts, which for the most part have occurred in large, predominantly Democratic counties, have produced new votes for Republicans, too — albeit fewer than for Democrats in the blue strongholds where the counting has taken the longest.
In Arizona, Sinema was slightly behind Rep. Martha McSally (R) on election night in the race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R). But as officials there continued to count ballots, she sprang into the lead. On Monday, the Associated Press declared Sinema the winner, with 38,197 more votes than McSally.
In Florida, Scott’s lead over Nelson has narrowed to 12,562 votes out of more than 8 million ballots cast, or a margin of 0.15 percent, according to an unofficial tally Saturday. State law mandates a machine recount if the margin is half a percentage point or smaller and a manual recount if the margin is a quarter of a point or smaller. Counties are racing to meet a Thursday deadline to finish the machine recount.
Some Republicans have defended Trump’s and Scott’s heated language.
“The rhetoric of Trump and Gov. Scott is warranted because candidates and voters have a right to know how election officials are conducting business,” said Dan Eberhart, a fundraiser for Scott and former Florida congressman Ron DeSantis. “Trump’s severe rhetoric draws attention to blatant failures in the system.”
Scott has called on state law enforcement to investigate heavily Democratic Broward and Palm Beach counties, citing potential vote-counting confusion but providing no evidence of outright fraud. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a fellow Republican, echoed the governor’s request and argued that state law enforcement has a “duty” to investigate. Scott also has ordered sheriffs around the state to police the recounts and has filed lawsuits to try to force Broward and Palm Beach counties to essentially treat their elections offices as crime scenes.
National Republican figures backing Scott, including Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), are holding daily briefings to raise questions about the integrity of the election.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush also joined the fray Monday, saying there was “no question” that Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes has broken the law and that she should be removed from office after the recounts.
A pro-Trump political committee is throwing $250,000 behind an attack ad against Snipes on television in southern and central Florida and online. “Legal voters in Florida are outraged, and Brenda Snipes must be removed,” says the ad by Great America PAC, which suggests blatant fraud with no evidence. “When we can’t trust our elections, we don’t have a democracy.”
State law allows the governor to suspend an elections supervisor for malfeasance or incompetence and appoint a replacement. Snipes was appointed by Bush in 2003 after he ousted her predecessor for mismanagement; she since has been reelected four times.
“I’ve never been a target like this in my life,” Snipes said. “There is no rampant fraud here.”
So far, courts and state agencies are resisting Scott’s demands to intervene in the recount. In Broward, a state judge on Monday rejected Scott’s request to have ballots and machines not used in the recount be impounded, admonishing him to “ramp down the rhetoric” and let elections workers do their job. The secretary of state, which is in charge of monitoring elections, has said the office has found no evidence of criminal activity.
The governor’s use of his bully pulpit is provoking appeals that he recuse himself from the vote counting — not only from Nelson, but also the Florida League of Women Voters. The organization, which alleged that Scott “intentionally politicized governance of the election,” filed a lawsuit Monday demanding that he remove himself from the recount process.
National and state election officials also sounded alarms about heated rhetoric coming from the governor and the White House.
“Providing clear and accurate assessments of elections is crucial when you are dealing with voter confidence,” said Maria Benson of the National Association of Secretaries of State, which calls itself the nation’s oldest nonpartisan professional group for public officials. “When you plant that seed like that, it’s hard to take it back.”
Ronald Labasky, executive director of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, another nonpartisan group, called the claims of voter fraud “irresponsible” in light of the lack of evidence. “Allegations of this nature do make people question whether the process is fair and the result is correct,” he said.
The White House did not respond to requests for evidence of fraud or to questions about whether Trump thinks the votes of military members serving overseas should be counted.
Another issue is the handling of 205 votes in Broward County, from voters who were forced to cast provisional ballots on Election Day because connectivity issues prevented the county system from verifying their registration — even though phone calls to the central election office confirmed that they were all registered.
On the night of the election, those provisional ballots were taken out of their envelopes, counted and set aside. But it was later determined that 20 of those ballots were ineligible because of mismatched signatures on the envelopes. Republicans are insisting that all 205 ballots must be thrown out; Democrats are demanding they count.
“I think the takeaway, fairly or not, from Florida to Georgia to Arizona, is Republicans continue to try to suppress the vote and Democrats continue to try to turn it out,” said former Florida congressman David Jolly, who recently left the GOP to become an independent. “Current political leaders making these false allegations in itself is a failure of leadership. . . . They’ve already undermined the legitimacy of the election, in some ways.”
But suspicions abounded outside the Broward elections office in Lauderhill, where protesters in the parking lots waved signs and swayed to the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a signature song from Trump campaign rallies.
Linda Schainberg, 56, was showing off cellphone video of trucks backing up to the elections office three days after the election. “You could hear them rolling out boxes of ballots,” said Schainberg, though she acknowledged she didn’t see what was inside the boxes.
Snipes said trucks have been returning election equipment, chairs and tables from the 577 polling locations — not boxes of ballots.
In a case that will test the Republican hard-line stance on ballots, some voters in the conservative Florida Panhandle — still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Michael — faxed and emailed their ballots, state officials confirmed. It was unclear how many votes were at stake.
“Anytime that we are working outside of the law . . . that concerns me,” Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) said on a call with reporters arranged by Scott’s campaign. “It has to go either way — no matter if it’s a Republican county or a Democrat county.”
The governor’s aggressive posture in recent days contrasts with that of DeSantis, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, who is sitting on a bigger cushion of 33,684 votes. After the unofficial tally was posted Saturday, he expressed his “appreciation” to all the election supervisors in the state and said he was focused on transitioning into the governor’s office.
Both Republicans and Democrats have questioned why Scott would allege fraud in an election many expect him to win. Scott was surprised when DeSantis, a Republican former congressman from the Daytona Beach area running for governor, garnered more votes than a two-term governor, said one Republican familiar with the party’s strategy discussions.
Scott also has been hard-pressed to answer questions about why he didn’t remove Snipes, the Broward elections supervisor, in 2016, when she was accused of destroying ballots in a congressional election while a lawsuit was pending.
A Pew survey this fall found Americans seeing voter suppression, in principle, as a bigger problem than voter fraud. A 58 percent majority said that if one out of a million eligible voters was improperly prevented from voting, it would be a “major problem” for the election, compared with 41 percent who said it would be a major problem if one person voted despite lacking eligibility.
Alice Crites, Lori Rozsa, Felicia Sonmez, Scott Clement and John Wagner contributed to this report.