WASHINGTON - House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday faced solid opposition from at least 17 Democrats and encountered a significant bloc of undecided women in her bid for speaker, setting the stage for an intense battle over who will ascend to one of the most powerful positions in Washington.
After a campaign in which some Democrats prevailed in competitive districts by promising to oppose her, a coalition of incumbents and newly elected members have denied her a smooth path to the speakership. Those ranks could swell as more races are called.
Rep.-elect Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, who ran on an explicit pledge to oppose the 78-year-old California lawmaker, said Wednesday she was determined to keep her word to constituents and back someone else.
"I think there are some great people that will be coming forward, and I'm excited to see who those people might be," Sherrill said. "They haven't identified themselves yet, but we have such a deep bench of talent in the Democratic Party."
The defections, if they stand, would leave Pelosi several votes short of the 218 she would need when the full House votes for speaker Jan. 3. However, no Democrat has stepped forward to run against her.
Pelosi and her allies worked furiously Wednesday, rolling out endorsements from several major unions while she made her case to the Congressional Black Caucus, a crucial bloc. At a closed-door meeting of House Democrats, a newly elected lawmaker from Pelosi's home state shut down an attempted rules change advanced by one of her critics.
Pelosi, who has led the Democrats for more than 15 years, has put her gender front and center in the campaign, arguing that a woman must be at the table to do business with President Donald Trump and male congressional leaders. She raised millions of dollars and campaigned hard for dozens of women who will be part of a record number in the House.
But some of those women were unwilling Wednesday to say definitively that they would back Pelosi - despite suggestions from some of her allies that it would be an insult to female voters to do anything less.
"I'm really looking forward to having a conversation to make sure that we're all aligned on an agenda," Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., said. "That's really important when thinking about who to support as leader."
If Pelosi is to take back the speakership, a job she held from 2007 through 2010 as the first woman in the post, she will need support from many of these women. And as she and her allies worked to ensure that she gets it, some argued that after an election season with women at the fore, a female speaker is paramount.
"I think the fact that we have won the House majority because of women candidates with huge women turnout, to then deny the first woman speaker who led us to that victory the gavel I think would be a slap in the face of a lot of voters who sent us here," said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.
Pelosi succeeded in winning over at least one female newcomer in the course of the day: Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, who went from declaring herself undecided around noon to announcing her support for Pelosi by day's end, calling her "the best qualified to lead our caucus in a productive way."
There are 34 women among the 54 newly elected House Democrats, although a handful of races remain uncalled. As of now, there are 17 current and incoming lawmakers who have declared their intent to oppose Pelosi; among them are five women. If the current leads hold in uncalled House races and Democrats end up controlling 232 seats next year, Pelosi could afford to lose only 14 of those 17 Democrats on the floor - presuming every Republican votes against her and no one votes "present."
Members of the small group of incumbent Democrats who are plotting against Pelosi said Wednesday that they are continuing to solicit signatures to a letter declaring that its signers will not support her in the Jan. 3 floor vote. Three - Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., and Filemon Vela, D-Texas - said they have gathered the requisite number of signatures, but they have yet to release the total. A House aide familiar with the effort but not authorized to speak publicly about it said the informal goal is to release it by week's end.
The math may look daunting, but many of Pelosi's supporters expressed confidence that she will be elected speaker. Allies circulated criticism of her opponents on Twitter with the hashtag #FiveWhiteGuys on Wednesday, picturing five leaders of the anti-Pelosi Democratic movement in the House who are all white men and comparing them to conservative dissidents in the House Republican conference.
Even though her opponents include women, such arguments reinforce one of the rationales advanced by Pelosi for why she should be returned as speaker. She has said that had Hillary Clinton won the presidency instead of Donald Trump, she would have been content to step aside. But because Clinton lost, the presence of a woman is crucial in congressional and White House negotiations.
Far from rejecting that argument, some of her opponents have echoed it even while calling for change at the top of the Democratic caucus.
"Amongst our group, there is wide consensus that our intent is, when we get to the point of seeking a new leader, that we have a woman in either the top leadership spot or the second spot," Vela said.
He said there are several women in the caucus who would be well-prepared to take the reins, among them Rep. Marcia Fudge, Ohio, who told reporters that she's being encouraged to stand for speaker if Pelosi doesn't have the votes.
"I've not talked to any of the new members. I'm not sure that I will. But I think that if in fact we were elected on change, then we should have change," Fudge said.
Democrats will vote internally on their nominee for speaker on Nov. 28. Pelosi is likely to win that vote easily, but the real test will come in the floor vote by the full House in January, where the margin Pelosi can lose will be much slimmer.
Addressing a scenario in which Pelosi cannot command the needed floor votes and yet there still is not anyone running against her, Fudge said: "Someone will emerge, if no one has emerged before that. We're not going to allow the Republicans to have a speaker."
Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., a Pelosi opponent who said she had been in touch with newly elected women, said she did not appreciate the efforts to put these incoming lawmakers on the spot by suggesting that it would be anti-woman to oppose Pelosi.
"These are all strong, intelligent women who got into a race who had never been in politics before and won really difficult races," Rice said. "They should not be disrespected that way. There are other women to support in this caucus who are perfectly capable of being in leadership."
The maneuvering among House Democrats took place as House Republicans elected their new slate of leaders for next year. Apart from the retirement of the current speaker, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Republicans are sticking with familiar faces despite their midterm losses. The current majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, easily turned back a challenge from conservative Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan of Ohio to serve as minority leader, while the current whip, Steve Scalise, La., will serve in the same role in the minority next year.
Pelosi extended words of welcome to her potential opponents. "Come on in, the water's warm," she said when asked about them before a caucus meeting.
Before addressing the session, Pelosi met with the Congressional Black Caucus - among the most important blocs inside the party - at Democratic National Committee headquarters. She promised to take quick action to shore up the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and pledged to give committee chairs a free hand to move legislation through their panels, a major issue for the CBC, which counts five incoming chairs in its ranks.
Pelosi stayed focused on the coming agenda and did not ask directly for speaker votes, but an attendee said the impression was clear: "It's hard to separate the two."
Later, at a closed-door meeting of House Democrats in which newly elected lawmakers met with returning members for the first time, Perlmutter sought to advance a rules change that could help the anti-Pelosi group to their goal.
But as he laid out his case, Rep.-elect Katie Hill of California spoke up, asking Perlmutter and his allies to step back from the "internal strife."
"The freshmen here would like to move forward," she said, effectively shutting down the debate, according to a person in the room and confirmed by Hill.
Hill, who flipped a seat from Republicans north of Los Angeles, said she was likely to support Pelosi.
"We need to hit the ground running, Day One. And that's really what it boils down to: I think we need to minimize any internal party strife; we need to get going," she said.
"This is the biggest year for women candidates that we have ever seen," Hill added, "and I think our leadership needs to reflect that."
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - It's the hanging chad of 2018: the mismatched signature.
Eighteen years ago, the last time the nation watched a recount unfold, election officials studied bits of paper dangling from punched ballots to glean voter intent - and to determine whether George W. Bush or Al Gore would be the next president.
This year, they are studying how voters loop their Hs.
A federal judge in Tallahassee heard arguments Wednesday about whether election officials may toss 4,000 ballots with signatures that don't match existing voter records. The suit was brought by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who is hoping to overtake Republican Gov. Rick Scott in a statewide recount. It is one of many lawsuits flying in state and federal court in the closely watched Senate race, which remains unresolved more than a week after Election Day.
Voter signatures have taken on outsized importance because they are typically required on absentee and mail-in ballots, which more and more Americans are using to vote. As Republicans and Democrats spar over which ballots should count in unresolved elections in Florida and Georgia, many of their disputes have centered on whether to accept ballots where the signature doesn't match.
The issue is acute in close races where absentee ballots could sway the outcome - and in states where voting by mail has exploded without a standardized system for checking the validity of a signature, the most common way to verify that a mail-in ballot is legal.
All of it has created an uproar among voting-rights advocates, who say that untrained election workers are tossing eligible ballots, often with no chance for the voter to object or fix the ballot.
"I had zero recourse here," said Patrick Murphy, a former Democratic congressman from Palm Beach who learned after the election that his absentee ballot had been rejected because of a mismatched signature - too late for him to do anything about it.
Murphy, who is 35, said he's had the same signature since he got his driver license at 16, so he thinks it's ridiculous that his ballot was tossed. "In elections, especially in Florida, that are within .5 percent or .25 percent, to have nonexperts be deciding this, seems a little silly to me," he said.
The issue is increasingly the subject of litigation elsewhere too. In a Georgia case similar to the one heard Wednesday in Florida, a federal judge ordered officials to stop summarily tossing absentee ballots without giving voters a chance to fix them. Georgia election officials are still counting provisional and absentee ballots in a contentious governor's race in which Democrat Stacey Abrams is hoping to force a runoff against Republican Brian Kemp.
Opinions on the issue divided starkly along partisan lines, with Democrats arguing for more recourse for voters and Republicans defending strict laws to guard against voter fraud.
"The signature requirement is a good requirement," said Republican Carlos Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade, Florida's largest jurisdiction with about 1.4 million registered voters. He said people known as "ballot runners" have improperly filled out ballots belonging to the elderly with their own choice.
"That's a very useful law," he said.
Democrats noted that most rejected ballots come from communities of color, which tend to vote Democratic. They say that is why Republicans favor strict signature laws despite no widespread evidence of voter fraud. Kemp, for instance, fought the court decision in Georgia.
"They are not effective anti-fraud measures," said Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, who is leading some of the litigation in Florida this week. "They are disenfranchisement measures. There is nothing in the Constitution that qualifies the right to vote with a consistent signature."
In Florida's Palm Beach County, attorney Bill Abramson described a painstaking process in which election officials, known as the canvassing board, sit at a table, surrounded by lawyers and party representatives, and study each ballot one at a time, trying to reach consensus about whether each one is valid.
"If you do this for a while, it's not that hard," said Abramson, who was there to monitor vote-counting in Palm Beach County on behalf of his friend, Democrat Jim Bonfiglio, whose race for the Florida State House is the closest in the state, with a margin of just 37 votes. "You don't need an expert to say, that one's not even close. You look for consistencies, the way people hook their H on the left side, that sort of thing. And you compare them."
Abramson lauded the board's work and said he objected to only four decisions out of 1,800 ballots. One rejected provisional ballot he thought should have gone through was from an 87-year-old woman who had tried to vote in person.
"She didn't have her picture ID, so they asked for her signature, and the signature she had on file was God knows how old, so they said it didn't match," Abramson said. "I thought they looked really close. I mean, look, she's 87, her writing is going to change. My signature has been on file since 1992, and it looks nothing like that today."
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Thirty-six states mandate signature matching on absentee or mail-in ballots, according to Gerry Langeler with the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for mail-in voting and encourages standardized systems to assess ballot signatures.
Most states have had these requirements for years. The attention on the issue this year is less a function of new laws than the explosion in mail-in voting, notably among older and disabled voters who struggle to vote in person.
In 2010, 20 percent of all ballots were mailed, Langeler said, and the figure has been growing steadily since; this year, the figure will be at least 28 percent.
It's not clear how many of these ballots are at stake in Georgia or Florida, or whether there are even enough to affect the outcomes.
Nowhere in U.S. society are signatures subject to the scrutiny they receive in elections. Signatures are essential on checks, mortgage documents and credit card receipts - but it doesn't really matter how they look.
And they often look pretty bad. No one objects when shoppers leave an illegible squiggle on an electronic keypad to pick up groceries or a prescription. And penmanship has become markedly worse among younger Americans, who spend far more time texting than writing in cursive. Some schools don't even teach it anymore.
People's signatures also evolve over time, and disabilities can make it difficult for voters to write at all.
Depending on the state, voter signatures are compared to records from ballot applications, registration forms and even sometimes to a years-old driver license - a signature often absent-mindedly scrawled onto an electronic keypad.
That creates the risk that legal votes will be disqualified, advocates say.
"Election officials need to be very careful when they decide to reject absentee ballots for such small issues," said John Powers, an attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which helped litigate the signature suit in Georgia. "And if they do, they should make some effort to contact the voter and verify the voter's identity to see if the issue can be resolved before the election."
Election officials say signature matching is essential to verify the identity of a voter who sends in a ballot by mail. Done right, it can result in minimal rejections, Langeler said. Colorado, for instance, requires all voters to vote by mail - and requires a two-person, bipartisan team of trained judges to examine every signature rejected by an initial computer scan. They also use several signatures from various records to compare with the ballot.
"Your goal is trying to make sure it's not a fraudulent ballot, like from somebody in the household of an elderly or disabled person," said Janine Eveler, director of elections in Cobb County, Georgia, where officials had to scour signatures on more than 25,000 mail-in ballots this year. "But if it's truly their vote, you want to count that. It's a balancing act."
In Cobb, Eveler has trained her staff to look for similarities in the handwriting on the voter's registration application as well as the signature stored in the state's computer system. She believes in giving the benefit of the doubt to the voter, she said - but that's her judgment, not a statewide standard. Ultimately, just 23 ballots were rejected because of a mismatched signature in Cobb, not enough to sway the outcome of any election this year.
It was a different story in neighboring and only slightly larger Gwinnett County, Ga., which rejected hundreds of applications for absentee ballots, which also require a matching signature. That makes the law unfair, advocates said, because voters are treated differently depending on where they live. Judges have agreed in cases in Georgia and New Hampshire.
There is also the risk of intentional voter suppression, advocates said. Gwinnett has a large minority population, and the majority of absentee ballot applications rejected in Georgia came from voters of color. Some advocates expressed concern that the computer record that local election officials use to match the ballot signature with the registration also shows a voter's race - leaving open the possibility of discrimination.
A Gwinnett County spokesman declined to comment on the issue, citing pending litigation. "But what I will tell you is that we have been following the law, and when we have received direction from the courts, we have followed that," said spokesman Joe Sorenson. "And that's what we will continue to do."
In New Hampshire, Maureen Heard says she knows exactly why her ballot was rejected - because she had quickly scrawled her signature on her ballot application, and then more carefully signed the ballot itself.
She was frustrated that she never got a chance to fix the problem and gladly signed onto a lawsuit from the ACLU.
"I didn't find out until months later," she said, "when the ACLU called me, that my ballot had been invalidated because the signature that I had on the envelope was kind of different than the one that I had tossed off when I was asking for the ballot."
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The Washington Post's Lori Rozsa in Riviera Beach, Fla., Sean Sullivan in Tallahassee and Beth Reinhard in Lauderhill, Fla., contributed to this report.