Florida’s Midterm Melee Finally Comes to an End

Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes listens to reports Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, at the Broward Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill, Fla. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) – Florida’s midterm melee is over, leaving in its wake memories of overheating ballot machines, voters unable to fix rejected ballots, and a Senate candidate intimating on national TV that there was “rampant” election fraud in the Sunshine State.

Florida’s election results were certified Tuesday, with Republican challenger and parting Florida governor Rick Scott winning his bid to take a U.S. Senate seat from three-term Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson.

Among other close races, Republican Ron DeSantis, an avid backer of President Donald Trump, prevailed over his Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum in the contest for governor.

The results were certified by the Elections Canvassing Commission: Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam and state senator Rob Bradley. Bradley replaced Gov. Scott on the commission after the governor recused himself.

Scott won the Senate seat by roughly 10,000 votes, according to the Florida Division of Elections’ latest posting. He’d seen his lead trimmed by more than 2,000 votes since the recount began.

The only U.S. Senate race that remains undecided is the Mississippi Nov. 27 special-election runoff to serve out the term of GOP Sen. Thad Cochran, who resigned, citing health issues.

Now that Scott is headed for the Capitol Building, Republicans have extended their 51-seat Senate majority by two seats. The midterm elections gave Democrats control of the U.S. House of Representatives with a net gain of more than 30 seats. (Several House races remain undecided).

Tuesday’s election certification in Florida put a cap on nearly two weeks of legal wrangling and ballot-tallying chaos. The saga culminated with the resignation of Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes over the weekend.

Florida’s Past Election Law Fix Didn’t Work, Judge Says  

In this Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, photo Republican Senate candidate Rick Scott speaks with his wife Ann by his side at an election watch party in Naples, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

In a labyrinth of election-related litigation filed by Scott and Nelson, several key orders emerged from Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Florida federal court.

In one decision, Judge Walker found that Florida does not give voters a proper chance to lodge a challenge when their mail-in or provisional ballots are rejected for signature-matching issues.

He made the observation in a case brought by Nelson’s campaign, which alleged that Florida counties’ methods for matching ballot signatures to signatures on file were inconsistent and resulted in disproportionate rejection of minority voters’ ballots. Thousands of ballots were rejected for signature problems across the state this year.

The lack of a “cure period” for voters to address ballot rejections was the focus of a prior lawsuit in 2016, Fla. Democratic Party v. Detzner. That case led the state to reform its election law to provide more voter protections in the event that a ballot is rejected.

According to Judge Walker, the changes to the law were not sufficient. The judge found that with the reforms in place, state law still set an illogical pre-election deadline for mail-in voters to address signature-mismatch issues. If a voter’s mail-in ballot is received on election day and is found to have a mismatched signature, the voter is left with little recourse to ensure his or her vote is timely counted, the judge found.

Judge Walker suggested Florida adopt a longer ballot-curing period employed in other states such as Oregon.

Upheld in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the judge’s decision gave affected voters until Saturday to ensure their votes were counted.

Failing, Outdated Equipment Blamed for Recount Blunders

Carts of ballots wait to be fed through machines to recount about 80,000 ballots for the Florida House District 89 race at the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Service Center in Riviera Beach, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (James Wooldridge/Palm Beach Post via AP)

Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher appeared resigned to failure as the deadline for the initial phase of the recount approached last week.

The reason for her sense of futility, she said, was that Palm Beach County’s ballot-counting machines were obsolete, as they could only recount one race at a time.

“We didn’t anticipate that we would have to run 100 percent of our ballots through these old machines,” Bucher said, according to a report in the Tampa Bay Times. “We anticipated we would have a pretty quiet midterm election as we used to. I guess that’s not the new norm.”

Bucher’s woes multiplied when her machines overheated and had to be serviced mid-recount. The snafu spawned more litigation: Rick Scott’s campaign sued the county, alleging it put the overheated machines back into service before legally required accuracy testing was performed.

Palm Beach County ultimately failed to meet the machine recount deadline.

Statewide, the machine recount yielded a 0.15 percent lead for Scott. That tight margin triggered a limited-scope manual recount, which ended Sunday with Scott’s victory.

In the race for governor, DeSantis’ lead over Democrat Andrew Gillum was wide enough that a manual recount was not ordered.

Claims of Fraud, Incompetence Shook Voter Confidence in Electoral Process 

In this Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, photo workers at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office show Republican and Democrat observers ballots during a hand recount in Lauderhill, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

When his lead over incumbent Nelson steeply dropped off due to post-election-night vote tallies trickling in from Democratic-leaning Broward and Palm Beach counties, Scott held a press conference and suggested that “unethical liberals” were trying to “steal the election.”

The Nov. 8 comments prompted Republican protesters to surround election offices in Broward.

An assistant for the Broward County Supervisor of Elections Office told Courthouse News that her coworkers struggled through the days of heavy criticism and national media attention.

“Oh, you have no idea,” she said. “We have received all kinds of harassment.”

President Donald Trump chimed in on the controversy repeatedly. When the Daily Caller asked him for his take on Snipes, Trump reportedly said: “When they call this woman incompetent, they’re wrong.”

“She’s very competent but in a bad way,” the president reportedly said.

In a political advocacy group’s lawsuit demanding Gov. Scott’s all-out recusal from state election processes, Judge Walker admonished Scott for his and his campaign’s rhetoric.

The judge called Scott’s insinuations of rampant fraud in the election “haphazard and reckless.”

He stopped short of ordering a recusal.

“Scott has toed the line between imprudent campaign-trail rhetoric and problematic state action. But he has not crossed the line,” the judge said.

Scott had already recused himself from the Elections Canvassing Commission before the judge’s decision was handed down.

In the late stages of the recount, the Scott campaign justified the fraud claims by pointing to altered ballot-curing application forms allegedly sent out by Democratic campaign agents. The forms — which voters use in order to challenge the rejection of their mail-in ballots — listed an incorrect date, making the submission deadline appear later than it actually was.

Local election offices could have readily rejected any altered applications as untimely, but according to the Scott campaign, tinkering with the application forms’ text was, in itself, illegal.

The Department of State referred the matter to federal prosecutors in a Nov. 9 letter.

The Florida Democratic Party said it’s investigating the source of the alleged altered forms.

Apart from any claims of intentional election tampering, there were some admitted shortcomings in the vote-tallying and recount process.

Snipes, the target of criticism from Scott, Trump and an army of pundits, told reporters last week: “There have been issues that did not go the way we wanted. We can call them mistakes, or we can call it whatever you want to call it.”

Among other criticism, Snipes has been knocked for her county’s high level of “undervotes” for the Senate race. More than 30,000 Broward ballots were missing a vote entry for the Senator race, a phenomenon that some critics blame on Snipes’ ballot design.

Snipes tendered her resignation letter Sunday, bringing her 15-year tenure as elections supervisor to an end. She was re-elected three times after her initial 2003 appointment to replace an ousted election manager, who had been canned for allegedly mismanaging staff and resources.

“Although I have enjoyed this work tremendously over these many elections cycles both large and small, I am ready to pass the torch,” Snipes said.

The assistant told Courthouse News Snipes, 75, was a “very kind and down-to-earth” boss.

Snipes had been in the center of controversies arising from the 2016 election season as well. Among them was the omission of medical-marijuana legalization measure from a cluster of 2016 ballots. Another was a court complaint filed by Democrat Tim Canova, who sought to examine ballots from a primary race he lost to Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

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