Florida election officials race to finish ballot recount

US judge includes mail ballots previously rejected in close governor’s race

Palm Beach County election officials prepare to recount ballots in West Palm Beach, Florida. Photograph:  Michele Eve Sandberg / AFP

Palm Beach County election officials prepare to recount ballots in West Palm Beach, Florida. Photograph: Michele Eve Sandberg / AFP

 

Florida election officials on Thursday were racing toward a deadline to finish a recount of ballots in close races for the US Senate and governor’s seat, and a federal judge expressed frustration with an election system he called “the laughing stock of the world”.

US district judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee, Florida, cleared the way to include ballots from as many as 5,000 people across the state who submitted ballots by mail that were rejected by election officials. A Georgia federal judge issued a similar ruling as that state worked to resolve a close governor’s race.

In Florida, the recount of close races from the November 6th elections and attendant legal disputes over the validity of votes have stirred memories of the 2000 US presidential election, when the US supreme court stopped an ongoing recount in the state and sent George W Bush to the White House.

Judge Walker grew testy during a series of hearings on Thursday about lawsuits over the recounts, voicing frustration about how to handle uneven progress in different counties and also questioning the Florida legislature’s response to historic election problems.

“We have been the laughing stock of the world election after election,” Judge Walker said. “But we’ve still chosen not to fix this.”

He rejected a request by incumbent US senator Bill Nelson and the Democratic Party to extend Thursday’s deadline to report results of the first-round electronic recount.

Separately, a federal judge in Georgia ordered state election officials to count some previously rejected ballots in that state’s governor’s race, where ballots are still being tallied but Republican former secretary of state Brian Kemp has declared victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Initial counts after the elections showed Florida’s outgoing governor, Republican Rick Scott, leading in his bid to unseat Mr Nelson. Republican Ron DeSantis led Democrat Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race.

In both races the margins of victory were below the 0.5 percentage point threshold at which state law requires a recount of ballots. If the margin is below 0.25 per cent by the end of the electronic recount, a second round of recounting by hand will follow.

Key swing state

Overall control of the US Senate is not at stake in the Florida race. President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans extended their majority in the chamber while Democrats took a majority in the House of Representatives. But both the Senate and governor’s races are being closely scrutinised as Florida is traditionally a key swing state in presidential elections.

The Democrats’ majority in the new House expanded by another seat on Thursday when the Maine secretary of state’s office declared Jared Golden the winner of a race against incumbent Republican representative Bruce Poliquin. That race represented an early test of a new state ranked-choice voting system, designed to prevent candidates in races with three or more contenders from winning office without majority support.

In Florida, Mr Nelson’s lead attorney in the case, Marc Elias, praised the judge’s ruling on Thursday.

Republicans, who have also filed lawsuits challenging the process, decried the ruling, and the Scott campaign filed an appeal.

“Another day, another chance for Marc Elias to rack up massive legal fees regardless of the blatant hypocrisy . . . or the damage this will do to Bill Nelson’s legacy,” Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said in an emailed statement.

It was not clear that additional ballots allowed in either Florida or Georgia would tip the races in question. – Reuters