Tensions rise in Florida amid questions about vote counts, fraud allegations

    A crowd protests outside the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Lauderhill, Fla. A possible recount looms in a tight Florida governor, Senate and agriculture commission race. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)

    Legal wrangling continued Friday in several races that remain unresolved three days after Tuesday’s election, with Democrats and Republicans arguing over uncounted ballots, multiple lawsuits pending, and unsubstantiated accusations of fraud and corruption flying.

    In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson have filed legal complaints as the Senate race tightens and hours tick away until informal results are due Saturday. Scott filed two suits Thursday accusing “unethical liberals” in Democratic counties of attempting to sway the election and calling for a law enforcement investigation.

    With Scott’s lead down to 0.18 percentage points, Nelson’s campaign also took legal action Friday against the Florida secretary of state over the process used to validate mail-in ballots. His attorneys argued the signature matching process is unreliable and could disenfranchise voters.

    Speaking to reporters before leaving the White House en route to Paris Friday, President Donald Trump accused Democrats of trying to steal the election. He made similar claims without evidence in a series of tweets from Air Force One.

    “Bad things have gone on in Broward County. Really bad things. She's been to court,” Trump said, referring to Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes. "She's had a lot of problems. She's lost. I say this: [Scott] easily won, but every hour it seems to be going down. I think that people have to look at it very, very cautiously.”

    Despite Trump’s claims, Scott has not “easily won” the election; no winner has been declared. Scott led after most ballots were counted Tuesday night, but the counting of provisional, absentee, and overseas ballots after an election is not abnormal, nor is the margin between candidates shifting during the process. Florida counties are not required to submit their unofficial vote counts to the state until Saturday, and several Republican-controlled counties were also still counting Friday.

    “Both sides agree with the maxim that all of the votes should be counted, but they want them counted in a fair and reasonable process, and that’s where the disagreement comes in,” said Darryl Paulson, a professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

    In a lawsuit against Snipes, Scott’s campaign alleged she was improperly withholding information about the counting process and she wrongly denied official requests to provide the number of ballots still uncounted. A judge has ruled Snipes must provide an accounting of how many ballots were cast in the county by 7 p.m. Friday.

    Statewide, Scott led Nelson by 15,175 votes as of Thursday night in the Senate race. Republican Ron DeSantis was ahead of Democrat Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race by 36,235 votes. If those margins hold when totals are reported Saturday, both are within the range to require a recount. A recount is also likely in the state's agriculture commissioner race.

    A separate complaint against Palm Beach County officials raised additional questions. Under Florida law, the supervisor of elections is empowered to make duplicate ballots to replace any physically damaged absentee ballots, but they are required to do so in the presence of witnesses. Scott’s complaint claimed his representatives were denied the right to witness the duplication of ballots.

    Scott also demanded Thursday the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate Snipes’ office, but the agency told the Tampa Bay Times Friday it is not conducting any investigation and it has received no allegations of voter fraud.

    Florida elections experts say Snipes’ conduct and her secrecy set off some red flags, but nothing revealed so far proves fraud is occurring.

    “If I was supervisor of elections, I would have been a lot more forthcoming Tuesday night and Wednesday morning,” said Aubrey Jewett, a professor at the University of Central Florida and co-author of “Politics in Florida,” though he acknowledged an overestimate or underestimate would also have been viewed with suspicion by some.

    Kathryn DePalo, a professor at Florida International University who has managed several political campaigns in Florida, called Broward County “an easy punching bag” for Republicans, but she stressed there are legitimate questions to be asked about its handling of ballots.

    “I think it would lean toward mismanagement perhaps, or certainly the lack of transparency There should have been somebody getting an accurate total of the number of votes,” she said.

    According to Carol Weissert, a professor at Florida State University and co-author of “Governing Health: The Politics of Health Policy,” administration of elections is very decentralized in Florida and efficiency varies widely from county to county. Broward faces a bigger logistical challenge and higher vote total than most, but its count has not gone as smoothly as similarly sized counties like Miami-Dade and Hillsborough.

    “I think it is a complicated process that takes time,” she said. “There are probably differences in staff capability but I really don’t see misconduct or rampant incompetence.”

    Trump is not the only one spinning conspiracy theories on social media, though. Amid the uncertainty, some on each side are accusing the other of trying to hijack the election and subvert the will of voters without any hard evidence.

    One incident raising alarm is the discovery of a box labeled “provisional ballot box” in the storage area of a Broward County elementary school long after voting was done. A county official told CNN it was filled with equipment, not ballots.

    Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have echoed the allegation that Democrats are trying to steal the Senate seat and the governor’s mansion.

    Rubio pointed to a video posted on Twitter by Tim Canova, a liberal activist who attempted to unseat Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in 2016, that he claims shows ballots being mishandled or possibly replaced with fake ones. Canova, who has been criticized in the past for promoting baseless conspiracy theories about Democrats, offered no proof anything sinister was occurring.

    Trump and his allies have also complained Marc Elias, one of Nelson’s attorneys, also worked with Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. In that role, he hired research firm Fusion GPS, which paid former spy Christopher Steele to compile an unverified dossier of information on Trump’s ties to Russia.

    “I don’t know, you tell me,” Trump said when asked by reporters Friday if he had evidence of fraud. “It’s always the Democrats. It’s always GPS Fusion. It’s always crooked stuff.”

    Once all the votes are counted Saturday, a machine recount will be ordered if the margin between the candidates is less than 0.5 percent. After that, if the margin is still less than 0.25 percent, a manual recount will occur, with election officials reviewing the ballots the machines could not count.

    “On Saturday, somebody is going to be declared the victor, in all likelihood,” Paulson said, though he added the other side can and probably will contest that outcome.

    The 2000 presidential election was resolved after 36 days because the Supreme Court halted a manual recount. These fights have the potential to drag out even longer.

    “This is going to end up in the courts This is going to be weeks,” DePalo said.

    The track record for Broward County in general and Snipes in particular is undeniably messy and troubling. Former Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Snipes after he removed her predecessor—who had taken over after the 2000 election debacle—over mishandling of the 2002 gubernatorial primary.

    After his defeat in 2016, Canova sued county election officials alleging misconduct. A judge ordered Snipes’ office to preserve physical ballots for review, but they illegally destroyed them and kept only digital copies.

    Snipes’ office was sued for leaving a medical marijuana amendment off some absentee ballots in 2016, but a judge eventually sided with the county in that case. Republicans also sued over how election officials opened absentee ballots in 2016, and a court ruled they could no longer be opened in secret.

    “She’s had a horrible history,” President Trump said Friday.

    As frustration mounted over the changing numbers of ballots in Broward this week, Snipes—who has been re-elected to the supervisor position four times since Bush appointed her—again faced criticism from all sides for mismanagement and secrecy.

    “The only thing both parties agree on right now is she’s got to go,” Paulson said.

    Scott’s office recognized the potential for problems ahead of time. After Snipes was cited for illegally destroying ballots, the governor assigned two staff members from the Division of Elections to oversee the preparation of equipment and procedures for the 2018 election and monitor the administration of the election.

    “Department observers continue to monitor the administration of the election through the certification of results,” a Florida State Department spokesperson said Friday.

    Paulson noted Scott had the opportunity and justification to remove Snipes before the election, but he opted not to.

    “Part of his problems stem from him not doing what he probably should have done,” he said.

    Experts on Florida politics say the state’s reputation as a hotbed of electoral incompetence and insanity is somewhat undeserved. Even in 2000, it used equipment and procedures similar to those of other states, but circumstances made the stakes higher there and appear to be doing so again.

    “I don’t know that Florida is any worse off in holding elections than any other state but we do get a spotlight more than most other states,” Jewett said. “That is because we are such a large, important swing state and also because we are so evenly divided by political party.”

    The contested elections in the balance now could have major implications for the U.S. Senate, where Republicans are eager to expand their majority, and the state, where the new governor will oversee redistricting after the 2020 Census.

    “Florida elections are typically very close and the results matter a great deal. When you mix local control, high stakes, and very close elections, you get what we have now,” Weissert said.

    DePalo, who lives in Broward County, said each county designs its own ballot in Florida, and a poorly-designed multi-page ballot in Broward left many voters overlooking the Senate section entirely. In the event of a manual recount, those ballots will become a central point of contention.

    “I believe it’s completely a flaw in the way the ballot was designed that is leading to the undervotes in the Senate race,” she said.

    Two other major statewide races remained up in the air Friday. In Georgia, GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp is hovering just above 50 percent of the vote with thousands of ballots not yet counted, and if he falls below that threshold, he will be forced into a run-off with Democrat Stacey Abrams. In the Arizona Senate race, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema took a nearly 10,000-vote lead over Republican Martha McSally Thursday night with thousands of ballots remaining.

    Even before any votes were cast, the Georgia race was mired in controversy because Kemp was the secretary of state overseeing the election until he formally resigned Thursday and he aggressively pushed to purge names from the voter rolls. He has been accused of voter suppression, but he insisted he was only trying to ensure the integrity of the voter registry.

    Election Day in Georgia was also plagued by reports of hourslong waits, insufficient resources, and logistical errors, often at precincts serving African-American voters. Critics have cast suspicion on Kemp over this as the state’s top election official, but his defenders say local election offices bear responsibility for many of the mishaps.

    In declaring him the winner Thursday, Kemp’s campaign maintained there are fewer than 25,000 ballots left to count and it is mathematically impossible for him to fall below 50 percent. Abrams’ campaign claims the total number of ballots left is unknown and its attorneys are searching for any remaining eligible ballots across the state that could spark a Dec. 4 run-off.

    As Abrams’ campaign and its legal team deploy volunteers to verify uncounted ballots, Kemp has accused them of trying to “create new votes.” Democrats stress counties have until next Tuesday to certify their election results, so there is still time.

    Controversy has emerged over vote-counting in Arizona as well, and that spilled over into outright allegations of fraud Friday. The Arizona Republican Party claimed Maricopa County officials deliberately destroyed evidence related to a lawsuit over signature verification procedures. On Twitter, Trump alleged “electoral corruption” and called for a new election to “protect our Democracy!”

    However, Republicans and Democrats reached a settlement Friday that would allow voters statewide to fix problems with their ballots until Nov. 14.

    Experts say the escalating legal battles are not a confidence-inspiring development for voters, and they could leave the legitimacy of the outcome of these races in doubt regardless of who wins.

    “I think there are a lot of voters who are going to be suspicious no matter what happens,” Jewett said.

    At this point, Paulson sees no resolution that does not lead to one side considering the election invalid.

    “Nobody can be happy with the situation,” he said.

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