(Bloomberg) -- Election officials and volunteers fanned out across Florida on Friday as a manual recount began in the race for a key U.S. Senate seat.
Florida’s secretary of state ordered counties to tally ballots by hand after a machine recount that ended Thursday showed Republican Rick Scott leading incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson by just 12,603 votes out of 8.2 million cast, well under the 0.25 percentage point threshold to trigger a hand recount.
Republicans will continue to hold a majority of Senate seats after last week’s midterm election, even though a tight race in Arizona ultimately went to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. The outcome of Florida’s Senate race, now entering the second phase of the legally mandated recount process, will determine the margin of the GOP majority and how many votes the party of President Donald Trump can afford to lose when confirming judicial nominees.
Scott’s campaign called on Nelson to decline the manual recount, which would halt the process according to Florida law. A statement from the Republican’s campaign said even the slew of lawsuits from Democratic attorneys wouldn’t turn up enough ballots to overturn the results, and it would be “mathematically impossible” for Nelson to win without fraud.
Nelson and his team say their only objective is to ensure that every vote cast legally is counted. Marc Elias, his lead recount lawyer, said he expects Scott’s lead to narrow as mail-in ballots and those that were initially rejected for a signature mismatch are included in the total.
“It’ll be an important couple of days,” Elias said Thursday, as the manual recounts come in from Florida’s 67 counties.
Teams of vote-counters are poised to spend the next three days at folding tables inside warehouses, where each counter will be closely monitored by representatives of each major political party. Their task: to address all ballots where voters picked too many or too few candidates.
But workers are up against the clock. Broward County -- the state’s second-largest -- finished its manual recount on Friday, a day after it missed the machine recount deadline by minutes due to technical problems, essentially rendering a days-long scramble pointless.
Palm Beach County, the third largest, was also unable to finish the machine recount in time, and U.S. District Judge Mark Walker declined to give individual counties more time for the machine recount. This was a disappointment for Nelson’s lawyers, who hoped to extend the deadline after ballot-counting machines in Palm Beach County malfunctioned.
Walker has given mixed rulings in the series of lawsuits filed by campaigns and outside groups. On Thursday, he ruled in Nelson’s favor and gave voters whose mail-in ballots were rejected because of a signature mismatch until Saturday to “cure” their ballots, or prove their identity and the validity of their vote.
Later Thursday night, Walker ruled that Scott had not violated his authority as the state’s current governor by overseeing an election in which he is a candidate. Walker also rejected a Democratic lawsuit that questioned the consistency standards used to determine overvotes (when more than one candidate is chosen on the ballot) and undervotes (when the ballot shows no choice for any candidate in the relevant race).
Elias said Nelson’s legal team will consider additional lawsuits if there are any concerns in the manual recount process that not all votes were properly tallied.
Some counties have already started the hand recount of ballots in question, which doesn’t include ballots that were correctly tallied by machines. Election officials in Miami-Dade County, the state’s most populous, have 10,039 votes to inspect, according to the Miami Herald.
The two campaigns have teams of lawyers and thousands of volunteers on hand to observe the process. County canvassing boards must complete the manual recount and submit their results by Sunday, according to state law and the timeline set for the 2018 midterm election.
The recount process will also determine who will be Florida’s next agriculture commissioner in a race separated by just a few hundred votes.
The machine recount concluded Thursday did finalize the tally for the gubernatorial race, in which Republican Ron DeSantis appeared to narrowly defeat Democrat Andrew Gillum.
Georgia’s gubernatorial race, however, remains undecided. Democrat Stacey Abrams is trying to get enough votes to force a runoff with Republican Brian Kemp, which would be triggered if no candidate received more than 50 percent of votes cast. Federal courts have ordered the state to delay certifying the vote there until today at 5 p.m. and required counties to count absentee ballots rejected because of missing or incorrect birthdates.
--With assistance from Margaret Newkirk.
To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan Levin in Miami at email@example.com;Anna Edgerton in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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