U.S. Politics

Why Democrats think they can still win Florida

The possible recounts in Florida’s Senate and governor races, explained.

Florida, America’s most notorious swing state, could be headed for a recount in its major statewide elections for both the Senate and the governorship, where Republicans are narrowly leading.

The races between Rick Scott and Sen. Bill Nelson for US Senate and between Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum for governor remain too close to call after Tuesday’s election. Under Florida state law, a recount is triggered if the margin of victory is equal or less than 0.5 percent.

Nelson’s campaign has already called for a recount; at press time, Scott, the current Republican governor, had a lead of about 0.2 percent — well in the range of a recount.

“At the end of this process Sen. Nelson is going to prevail,” Marc Elias, Nelson’s campaign lawyer, said Thursday on a press call. “I am very measured in how I treat what I say. When I say it is currently a jump ball … I mean that.”

Gillum has already conceded to DeSantis; however, as votes continue to be counted, the margin is becoming so small that it’s bounding toward a recount as well. At any rate, a concession speech isn’t legally binding, so if the recount goes Gillum’s way, he can just take it back.

The stakes for both outcomes are high, given strikingly contrasting visions for the state and the country — and that Republicans have a bare 51-majority in the Senate (one they would expand if Scott wins). Whatever happens in Florida could have huge national consequences.

Elections in Florida are almost always very close. And this year, even in a midterm cycle, is no different.

While the early results seemed to favor Democrats, Republicans, like in 2016, showed their might throughout the night and have held a very narrow lead since early Wednesday morning. But not all the votes have been counted yet — and some of the most populous counties in Florida don’t even know how many more votes there are to count.

That’s a good sign for Nelson and Gillum, who have seen their vote totals grow as more votes come in from the southeastern parts of the state.

In Broward County, the second-most-populous county in southeastern Florida that covers part of the Miami metropolitan area, Nelson currently has won 69 percent of the votes and Gillum has won 68 percent; there are still early and absentee ballots and Election Day votes to be counted. The same goes for Palm Beach County, where Gillum and Nelson are the big favorites.

Democrats are prepared for the long haul here — even Gillum, who gave a teary concession speech on Tuesday night.

“We are committed to ensuring every single vote in Florida is counted,” his campaign has since said.

Meanwhile, DeSantis, who claimed victory in the governor’s race, is already acting like the presumptive nominee, appointing a transition team.

Plainly, a recount means that every vote cast will be retabulated. In Florida, if the margin of victory is 0.5 percent or less, a machine recount is ordered. If that margin is 0.25 percent or less, the state will trigger a manual recount, where the “over votes” and “under votes” are counted by hand.

This matters, particularly in the Senate race. For example, in Broward County, of the 695,799 people who turned in ballots, only 665,688 voted in the Senate race, according to the current count — less than almost every other statewide race on the ballot. Broward County is a Democratic stronghold in Florida.

Why there have been so many “under votes” in Broward County remains a mystery. Some have said it’s because of how the ballot is formatted, putting the Senate race on the bottom of the page under a long block of voting instructions. But Nelson’s lawyer thinks it’s a machine error that would be rectified with a hand recount.

A recount also means that provisional and overseas absentee ballots — all of which are typically counted after Election Day — are counted, a process that can at times take more than a week.

This is where the process gets tricky.

There are always mail-in ballots and provisional ballots that aren’t counted — due to a lack of ID or matching address — that can be counted if they are rechecked. Typically, voters are notified of errors and have to sign an affidavit “curing” the mistakes before Election Day. But there are always ballots turned in on Election Day that can’t be re-checked, and people that cast provisional ballots.

According to Daniel Smith, a political scientist with the University of Florida and an election watcher, of the mail ballots returned on Election Day, more than 13,000 had issues.

Voters have until 5 pm Eastern time Thursday to make sure their vote counted, or “cure” their votes of any errors, and county supervisors must submit the results from provisional ballots by Saturday.

In a recount, the latter deadline could change. For now, campaigns are in a mad dash to contact voters and verify their ballots. This is a struggle — in past elections, fewer than half of cast provisional ballots actually get counted. But based on where provisional ballots have been cast so far, it looks like if they are counted, they’d overwhelmingly go toward Democrats. Overseas and military ballots still haven’t fully come in for this election, and those typically strengthen Republicans’ leads.

For most election watchers, the idea of a Florida recount gives Democrats flashbacks to the 2000 presidential election, when George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore by 537 votes in Florida after a partial recount that was ultimately halted by the Supreme Court. A report after the race found that if the entire state had had a thorough recount, Gore likely would have won.

That was a highly unique case. That said, it’s also unusual for a recount to change the final results of an election.

As FiveThirtyEight reported in 2016, between 2000 and 2015, there have been 27 recounts in statewide general elections, only three of which actually change the final result:

Al Franken’s win in Minnesota’s 2008 U.S. Senate race, Thomas M. Salmon’s win in Vermont’s 2006 auditor election and Christine Gregoire’s win in Washington’s 2004 gubernatorial race.

But that doesn’t mean these races in Florida aren’t close enough to become part of that statistic. Based on the numbers so far, there are a couple of reasons Democrats have hope in Florida: 1) Not all the votes have been counted — and those that remain to be counted are in Democratic strongholds; 2) the margins are so small that provisional ballots could have an impact here, and they often go toward Democrats.

It’s worth noting that in 2016, Elias, currently Nelson’s elections lawyer, was general counsel on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, when he very realistically said that Clinton’s chance of winning through recounts was next to none.

“The number of votes separating Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the closest of these states — Michigan — well exceeds the largest margin ever overcome in a recount,” he said then.

On Thursday, Elias had a very different tone; he told reporters he was “confident” Nelson would win.

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