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Overheating machines, legal challenges hamper Florida recount

Updated November 14, 2018 - 10:21 am

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s election recount drama is intensifying as lawyers return to court and tallying machines break down ahead of a Thursday deadline to complete reviews of the U.S. Senate and governor races.

Amid the turmoil, Republican Gov. Rick Scott agreed to step down from the state panel responsible for certifying the final results. Scott is locked in a tight race with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and has already suggested fraud may be taking place in some counties. Critics have said Scott should have no role in overseeing the election given his close contest.

Some of the recount trouble centers on the Democratic stronghold of Palm Beach County, where tallying machines have overheated. That’s caused mismatched results with the recount of 174,000 early voting ballots, forcing workers to go back and redo their work with no time to spare.

“The machines are old,” said Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, who said they underwent maintenance right before the election. “I don’t think they were designed to work 24/7 — kind of like running an old car from here to L.A. And so, you know, things happen to them.”

Meanwhile, lawyers for Democrats planned to ask a federal judge Wednesday to set aside the state law mandating that mailed-in votes be thrown out if the signature on the envelope doesn’t match the signature on file.

Multiple lawsuits —challenging everything from the rules used for recounts to Gov. Scott’s role in supervising the state office that oversees elections — are piling up in a Tallahassee federal court.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, citing a well-known “Star Trek” episode, said during a hearing Wednesday that “I feel a little bit like Captain Kirk in the episode with the Tribbles where they start to multiply.”

The developments are fueling frustrations among Democrats and Republicans as the recount unfolds more than a week after Election Day. Democrats have urged state officials to do whatever it takes to make sure every vote is counted. Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have argued without evidence that voter fraud threatens to steal races from the GOP.

The Republican candidates for governor and Senate, Ron DeSantis and Scott, hold the narrowest of leads over their Democratic counterparts, Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson.

Scott was in Washington, D.C., while the court battles rage on. He stood at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s left shoulder Wednesday when the Kentucky Republican welcomed GOP senators who will take their seats in January when the new Congress is sworn in.

During the brief photo-op in McConnell’s Capitol office, Scott did not reply to a question about whether he contends there was fraud in the election.

Trump has called on Nelson to admit that he lost his re-election bid.

“When will Bill Nelson concede in Florida?” the president tweeted Tuesday. “The characters running Broward and Palm Beach voting will not be able to ‘find’ enough votes, too much spotlight on them now!”

Presidents have historically sought to rise above partisan dramas surrounding election irregularities, but this Florida recount has been personal for Trump. He aggressively campaigned in the state, endorsing DeSantis. After Election Day, Trump’s aides pointed to the GOP’s seeming success in the state as a validation that the president’s path to re-election remained clear — a narrative that has grown hazier as the outcomes have become less certain.

In South Florida, dozens of workers keep feeding ballots into counting machines at the Broward and Palm Beach County elections centers. They place stacks of ballots into feeders that run through several per second. Then they grab another stack and do it again.

State law requires a machine recount in races where the margin is less than 0.5 percentage points. In the Senate race, Scott’s lead over Nelson was 0.14 percentage points. In the governor’s contest, unofficial results showed DeSantis ahead of Gillum by 0.41 percentage points.

Once the machine recount is complete, a hand recount will be ordered in any race where the difference is 0.25 percentage points or less, meaning it could take even longer to complete the review of the Senate race if the difference remains narrow.

If the Senate race does go to a hand recount, the deadline for counties to finish is Sunday. But two of the pending four lawsuits ask that a federal judge delay the deadlines so all counties can finish processing the crush of ballots.

Marc Elias, an attorney for Nelson, argued that there’s no need to rush, since the winner of the Nelson-Scott race won’t be sworn into office until January.

The lawsuit, however, that could significantly alter the final vote count is the one asking Judge Walker to allow votes to be counted if the signatures on the ballot and initial registration form don’t match. Lawyers for Democrats are including in the evidence testimony from former Florida U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy.

As the vote counts tightened last week, Murphy checked the Palm Beach County elections website and saw his mail-in vote was scrapped because of an invalid signature.

“That’s crazy. It shows how broken our system is,” Murphy said. “You just wonder how many other cases there are.”

Murphy, who was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2016, said he hoped to appeal, but learned the Nov. 5 deadline had already passed.

“In a state like Florida that has a history of really close elections … where it’s really a coin toss of a state, these kind of errors and mishaps,” are troubling.

Associated Press writers Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida; Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida; Jennifer Kay and Freida Frisaro in Miami; and Alan Fram, Darlene Superville and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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