The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawsuits mount over Florida recount battle as political acrimony deepens

Florida is holding recounts in the state's tight races for Florida's governor, U.S. senator and agriculture commissioner, as President Trump attacked the move. (Video: Reuters)

LAUDERHILL, Fla. — Acrimony in the Florida recount battle deepened Monday as Sen. Bill Nelson (D) called on his Republican opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, to recuse himself from overseeing the process, and as President Trump alleged without evidence that ballots were missing and forged.

As local officials scrambled to meet Thursday’s machine-
recount deadline, lawsuits mounted from all sides — including a complaint by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause Florida seeking to bar Scott from using his position to influence the ballot-counting process.

Earlier Monday, a state judge rejected a request from Scott to seize voting machines and ballots in closely watched Broward County, ruling there was no evidence of voter fraud.

Meanwhile, Scott pressed forward with plans to travel to Washington this week for orientation activities designed for newly elected senators. “I’m headed to Washington tomorrow to start the process of becoming the next U.S. senator,” Scott said Monday night in an appearance on Fox News.

Machine recounts in Florida’s races for governor, Senate and agriculture commissioner were ordered Saturday because of tight margins in the votes and immediately became the focus of lawsuits by candidates. A more-complicated hand recount could follow in the Senate and agriculture commissioner races, depending on the margins of victory.

The results in the country’s largest swing state will have repercussions in Washington, where a win by Scott would help Republicans further consolidate their Senate majority.

As the recount continues, Scott is engaging frequently with national Republicans and pressing wealthy benefactors to donate to his effort. On Tuesday, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Scott intend to hold a conference call with donors, according to two people familiar with their plans.

Monday began with a combative tweet from Trump claiming that “an honest vote count is no longer possible” and that ballots had been “massively infected.” He argued that the results from the night of the Nov. 6 election should stand, handing victories to Scott, as well as Republican former congressman Ron DeSantis in the gubernatorial contest.

“The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged,” the president said in a tweet that misstated what Florida officials have concluded.

Under state law, ballots from overseas and military voters have until Friday to arrive to be counted.

White House officials did not respond to requests for comment about whether the president was referring to those ballots.

On the ground, both campaigns began mobilizing thousands of volunteers amid growing legal challenges.

Rebuffing Scott’s campaign, state Judge Jack Tuter ruled against the governor’s request to have local sheriffs seize ballots and machines in Broward County not in use in the recount. Tuter said that there was no evidence of voter fraud and that Brenda Snipes, the county election supervisor, needs to be allowed to do her job and finish the count.

Tuter also appeared to admonish the Scott team for suggesting voter fraud without offering evidence of it.

“Everything the lawyers are saying out there at the elections office is being beamed out across the country. We should be careful what we say,” Tuter said. “These words mean things these days, as everybody in the room knows.”

Tuter’s ruling was on one of at least nine lawsuits that have been filed over the recounts. Scott also has sued to impound ballots and equipment in Palm Beach, although there has not yet been a hearing on that suit.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle spoke about concerns regarding the elections in Florida on Nov. 11. Three statewide races will be recounted. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

New lawsuits Monday include one filed on behalf of VoteVets, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee asking that all mail-in ballots postmarked by last Tuesday be counted. Under current rules, ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

A separate suit by the League of Women Voters and the nonprofit watchdog group Common Cause Florida asks to bar Scott from using “the power of his office in any manner related to Florida’s 2018 Senate race as long as he remains a candidate.”

Scott’s “misuse of his official powers in favor of his own candidacy demonstrates the truth of the axiom that no man may be the judge in his own cause,” the lawsuit stated.

The suit echoes Nelson’s call earlier Monday for Scott to recuse himself from the recount. “He’s thrown around words like ‘voter fraud’ without any proof,” Nelson said.

In a Fox News television appearance earlier, Scott called Nelson a “sore loser” and alleged that “he’s just here to steal this election.”

On Wednesday, a court will hear a request from Nelson to reexamine absentee and provisional ballots that were not counted because signatures did not match.

Scott’s team is bracing for the likely prospect of a manual recount. They are planning to have at least one lawyer in each of the state’s 67 counties if a manual recount is triggered.

Scott already has lined up more than 7,500 recount volunteers. Larger concentrations of volunteers will appear in more-populous counties and areas where Republicans have pointed to issues in vote counting, including Broward and Palm Beach, according to his campaign.

Democrats say they will muster similar cavalry.

“We will easily match that number,” said Charles Lichtman, one of the lawyers working on behalf of Nelson. “I look forward to this being, you know, the ‘Game of Thrones’ final scene” — in which the Republicans lose, he added.

Lichtman said he is in charge of recruiting, training volunteers, positioning them in the right places, making sure they follow the law and “making sure every vote gets counted.”

On Monday, the recount process was further roiled by the revelation that voters in Bay County, which was hit by Hurricane Michael, had been allowed to submit ballots by email, in apparent violation of state law.

Bay County Supervisor of Elections Mark Andersen said in an interview with local TV stations WJHG and WECP on Friday that he had allowed 147 voters to return their ballots by email. Anyone who wants to take away those votes “ought to be ashamed of yourselves because what we did is take care of voters,” Andersen said in the interview.

Scott issued an executive order Oct. 18 giving election supervisors in eight counties that were hit hard by the hurricane the ability to extend early voting and accept vote-by-mail ballots. But a statement issued by Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s office on the order noted, “Voting by fax or email is not an option under the Executive Order.”

Sarah Revell, a spokeswoman for Detzner, said in a statement Monday that the Florida Department of State has received reports that Bay County had allowed some voters to submit their ballots via email and fax. She declined to say whether Andersen may have violated state law.

“Supervisors of Elections are independently elected constitutional officers and it is each supervisor’s responsibility to adhere to the law at all times,” Revell said.

Counties varied in their confidence of completing the machine recount by Thursday.

Officials in Broward, a Democratic stronghold, were testing machines and preparing paper ballots for a tabulation that had yet to begin. Snipes said she was confident that the machine recount would be completed by the deadline.

Republicans continue to call for the ouster of Snipes, who previously has battled accusations of mismanagement. On Monday, former governor Jeb Bush (R), who appointed Snipes in 2003, called for her removal from office following the recounts, alleging in a tweet that Snipes had “failed to comply with Florida law on multiple counts.”

In Palm Beach County, officials were less certain. “We’re going to give it all we got; we’ll see how it goes,” Susan Bucher, the county’s supervisor of elections, said when asked whether the county recount would be done by Thursday.

Anne Gannon, Palm Beach County tax collector, said officials may ask for an extension if necessary Thursday.

The county’s tabulation machines being used in the recount are 10 years old, said Gannon, a Democrat. And they can read only one race at a time, which means ballots will have to be fed through the machines four times to count the four close races: U.S. Senate, governor, agriculture commissioner and a local state House seat.

“My understanding is that the more times a ballot goes through one of the machines, the more chances are that it will be damaged and have to be duplicated,” Gannon said.

Sonmez reported from Washington, and Sullivan reported from Tallahassee. Alice Crites and John Wagner in Washington, Beth Reinhard in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Lori Rozsa in Palm Beach contributed to this report.