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Mixed-In Ballots From Senate Race Halt Broward's Commissioner Of Agriculture Recount

Lily Oppenheimer
Hundreds of volunteers gathered for the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture race hand recount on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.

Last Sunday, Broward attorney and GOP State Committeeman Richard DeNapoli got a call from an employee at Avis Rent-A-Car in the Fort Lauderdale airport. Someone had found a lone provisional ballot box, sealed by the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office. It was sitting, unsupervised, in the back of a returned rental car.

“There were only unmarked ballots in the box along with supplies and materials,” DeNapoli said. “But still, having unmarked ballots floating around or sitting at an airport is not a thing that inspires confidence.”

Confidence in a smooth Broward manual recount also wavered for the hundreds of volunteers who arrived to hand count 22-thousand ballots on Saturday for the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture race. At that time, Democrat Nikki Fried was leading Republican Matt Caldwell by fewer than 6,000 votes.

But somehow, envelopes containing ballots labeled from Friday’s Senate recount made their way into the agriculture commissioner recount tables on Saturday. 

The day before, volunteers had conducted a manual recount of about 32,000 undervotes and overvotes in the U.S. Senate race between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. (An undervote is when a voter didn’t fill-in a choice, and an overvote is when a voter filled-in more than one candidate for a race.)

Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN
Volunteer and attorney Richard DeNapoli prepares to help hand count over 22,000 ballots in the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.

But after training at 7 a.m. Saturday, learning how to scrutinize each ballot and determine voter intent in groups of four, the recount abruptly stopped. 

As ballots with the stickers indicating ‘U.S. Senate’ began to show up at observer tables, more and more raised their hands for help.

Broward Canvassing Board Judge Deborah Carpenter-Toye presided over the recount in place of Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes that morning. Carpenter-Toye refused to call-off the recount after Republican lawyer Joe Goldstein asked for a second shot.

Then Carpenter-Toye turned her attention to the hundreds of observers.

“I want everybody that’s working out there to be careful and pay attention,” she said. “If it has the U.S. Senator sticker on the outside, just raise your hand, we’re gonna have a runner pick it up and we’re gonna set those in a separate stack so they’ll be identified.”

Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN
Broward County Democrat and Republican volunteers prepare for the hand recount for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture in the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.

Officials said about 10 out-of-place envelopes containing ballots were brought to the canvassing board’s attention. Besides the mix-up, Larry Davis, a lawyer for Democrat Nikki Fried’s campaign, asked the canvassing board about votes that didn’t add up into Broward’s machine recount.

“There’s really an issue with 2,000 ballots that are missing from the original count that was sent on the secretary of state on Saturday the 10th,  Davis said.

Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes told WLRN reporters those 2,040 missing votes were “intermingled” and never included in the machine recount last week. Broward will now use its first initial count -- not the machine recount. Those lost votes did end up in the final count sent to the state.

When also asked if he knew about the envelope mix-up, and if they were now labeled and stacked properly, he laughed.

“It’s hard to say, it’s Broward County Supervisor of Elections,” Davis said.

Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN
Hundreds gathered to hand count the ballots for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture in the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.

Other issues were brought up by observers like Phillip Collins, a Washington, D.C., attorney who came to  volunteer for the recount.

After observing the ballot design, he said he didn’t think the ballot was fair to the Senate race. With three columns on the front page, the Senate race was located in the lower left-hand corner, underneath the instructions.

“They didn’t vote in the column under which there were instructions, because people will assume it’s part of the instructions. So they skip it over,” Collins said.

“I would think there might be a constitutional challenge, saying that due process requires a fair ballot. That people are gonna be able to vote. It’s not a matter of hide-and-seek to be able to vote in an election.”

Volunteers finished the manual recount for agriculture commissioner around 9:30 a.m. Saturday WLRN’s news partner the Miami Herald reported about a dozen boxes of ballots were left for the board to certify by the end of the day.