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Hand Recounts Progress In Florida Senate Race

A woman sets up tables for hand-counting ballots in Palm Beach County on Thursday.
Michele Eve Sandberg
AFP/Getty Images
A woman sets up tables for hand-counting ballots in Palm Beach County on Thursday.

Election workers in Florida have been counting remaining ballots by hand in the close U.S. Senate and state agriculture commissioner contests, as a number of lawsuits are still outstanding in the final 48 hours before official election results are due to the state.

If a federal judge declines to extend the state's deadline, county canvassing boards need to turn in their official results following machine and manual recounts by noon on Sunday.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has asked for that deadline to be pushed back a number of times, most recently in a lawsuit filed Friday, in which he requests Palm Beach County hand-count every ballot that was cast there. He trails GOP Gov. Rick Scott in the Senate race by 0.15 percent, about 12,000 votes, a margin that was unchanged after machine recounts were done this week.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner ordered a statewide manual recount of the Senate race Thursday, because the margin between Scott and Nelson was within the 0.25 percent that triggers a manual recount under Florida law.

But that manual recount is not of all the ballots cast in the state; instead, it's of undervotes and overvotes (ballots that were either recorded by machine as blank, with too many candidates selected, or had other stray markings that made it impossible for a machine to read and determine a vote).

In the governor's race, Republican Ron DeSantis maintained a lead of 0.41 percent, more than 33,000 votes, which put it outside the margin for a manual recount. DeSantis has formed a transition team, while Gillum says he is pushing for every vote to be counted.

Palm Beach County's election supervisor, Susan Bucher, indicated Thursday that her staff would be able to complete the machine and hand recount for the U.S. Senate race but would be unable to complete the recounts requested by the state for the other statewide races, for governor and agriculture commissioner.

A separate lawsuit, filed by Democrat Jim Bonfiglio, a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives in Palm Beach County, requested the deadlines be delayed because under the current schedule, his race would not end up being recounted despite the margin being just 37 votes.

Palm Beach County has the oldest vote counting equipment in the state, and Bucher has received intense criticism over her office's inability to conduct the recounts in a timely fashion.

In an order issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker declined to move the deadlines in Bonfiglio's case as he wrote that Florida law is unambiguous on what happens if a county can't complete a recount in time: The county must turn in its initial unofficial set of returns.

"This Court will not rewrite the Florida Election Code," Walker wrote in his order. "The plain language of the relevant Florida statutes says what it says—good or bad."

Walker did ask, because the margin is so close, that the recount of the local House race move to the front of Palm Beach County's queue for after the manual recount of the Senate race is complete, which was expected to be done on Friday. That would then force those other two statewide races — governor and agriculture commissioner — to go without a recount in Palm Beach County.

Among the other lawsuits pending are a request by Democrats to count mail-in ballots that were sent before Election Day but not received by the supervisor of elections in time to count.

On Thursday, Walker denied a request by Democrats to nullify a state law that requires voters to use the same marking method for different races across their ballots, as well as a separate suit.

Scott has appealed a ruling by Walker from earlier this week, which gave voters an extended deadline of 5 p.m. Saturday to remedy issues with their signatures on provisional and mail-in ballots.

Counting by hand

In general, the manual recount process takes less time than the machine recount process, because each county is dealing with so many fewer ballots.

Fewer than 60,000 ballots need to be manually recounted, according to an estimate by the Associated Press, compared with the more than 8 million that were counted in the machine recount.

Broward County, which ended up missing Thursday's machine recount deadline, has already finished its manual recount for the Senate race, for instance.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.