As the Florida Senate race vote count continues to tighten, Gov. Rick Scott announced, without offering any evidence of fraud, that he was asking the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the election offices in two of Florida’s most Democratic-leaning counties. Scott, the Republican contender for the Senate post, also said late Thursday that he was filing a voter fraud lawsuit against election officials in the counties, Broward and Palm Beach.
Scott’s moves, which drew sharp criticism from the camp of his election foe, three-time Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, come on the eve of Saturday’s deadline to have all preliminary results reported to the secretary of state’s office in Tallahassee. Nelson has been slowly closing in on Scott’s lead, trailing by only about 15,000 votes statewide at midday Friday in a race in which almost 8.2 million ballots were cast.
Scott held a hastily called news conference at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee to announce his actions, which come as county election officials in Broward continued to pore through a slew of vote-by-mail, early voting, provisional and overseas ballots. Sixteen counties in Florida were still counting provisional ballots as of Friday.
Florida, which has never had a statewide recount, is likely looking at three. In addition to the Senate race, the governor’s contest had Republican Ron DeSantis leading Democrat Andrew Gillum by about 36,000 votes and Agriculture Commissioner contender Democrat Nikki Fried ahead of Republican Matt Caldwell by less than 3,000 votes.
After receiving the preliminary results from counties on Saturday, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Scott appointee, would then, by law, order a machine recount in any race where the margin is 0.5% or less. Later, if the margin remains 0.25% or less, there would be a manual recount, with each ballot looked at by hand.
The margin Friday between Scott and Nelson is 0.18%
A spokesperson for the state law enforcement department said the agency would investigate any allegations of fraud, but so far have not been presented with any.
Painstaking counts of provisional and mail-in ballots in exceedingly close races have also slowed the declaration of winners in a U.S. Senate contest in Arizona, the governor’s race in Georgia and several U.S. House battles in California. As in Florida, these races could also wind up in recounts, affecting the final composition of the incoming Congress.
While offering no evidence, Scott, in his announcement, said: “Every Floridian should be concerned there may be rampant fraud happening in Palm Beach and Broward counties.”
“I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the people of Florida.”
And on Friday morning, speaking on the South Lawn of the White House before departing for a weekend trip to Paris, President Trump insinuated that there was something nefarious about a Democratic candidate gaining ground in closely contested races as the final votes are tallied, something commonly seen in historic voting patterns.
"You notice the votes never go the other way?" Trump said. "They hire lawyers, and the votes don’t ever seem to go the Republican way.
"It's always the Democrats. … It's always crooked stuff.”
Nelson fired back with a video message to his supporters.
“Clearly, Rick Scott is trying to stop all the votes from being counted,” Nelson said. “And, he’s impeding the democratic process.”
The Broward elections office has not indicated when it might finish its initial count.
Broward County has 593,540 registered Democrats, 328,868 with no party affiliation and 252,023 Republicans. In Palm Beach County, there are 395,775 Democrats, 276,328 with no party affiliation and 264,902 Republicans.
Broward County has a rich history of election confusion. It was at the center of the “hanging chad” controversy that eventually resulted in the 2000 presidential election being ruled on by the Supreme Court, which, through its decision, handed the election to George W. Bush over Al Gore. Through the years, Broward has been cited for lost, missing or destroyed ballots, late opening of polling places, broken machines and general chaos. In 2002, Gov. Jeb Bush removed elections supervisor Miriam Oliphant from office and appointed current official Brenda Snipes in her place.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report from Washington.
John Cherwa is a special correspondent.