TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s seemingly never-ending midterm recount saga turns to federal court Wednesday where Sen. Bill Nelson’s uphill fight to stay in office hinges largely on an effort to overturn a state law that could free up “thousands” of additional votes.
The lawsuit centers on whether a state law requiring that signatures on mail and provisional ballots match those on file with election offices but has expanded beyond a fight over Florida statutes into a fight involving national political groups, former Congress members and the state’s top law enforcement officer.
The legal fight, which will play out this afternoon in Judge Mark Walker’s downtown Tallahassee courtroom, was originally filed by Nelson and the Florida Democratic Party against Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who is the Scott administration’s top election official. Gov. Rick Scott is Nelson’s Republican opponent in Florida’s U.S. Senate race, one of three statewide races in the Sunshine State that is being recounted.
There is initially a Thursday deadline for counties to finish a machine recount, which also involves Florida’s governor’s race, but there are legal challenges seeking to extend that time frame. Any race that is within .25 percent after the machine recount, whenever it concludes, would then go to a hand recount under Florida law. That could go on for weeks.
Among the reams of motions filed since the legal challenge was first made public last week are motions to intervene from Republican Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, a Washington-based group that helped Scott‘s 2018 Senate campaign against Nelson.
“The NRSC’s interest is to assure that Florida’s election laws are followed and not rewritten to the prejudice of Scott’s candidacy,” read the NRSC’s motion to intervene, which was granted.
Along with Florida-based attorney Andy Bardos with the law firm Gray Robinson, the NRSC filing includes attorney Helgi Walker and Thomas Dupree of the Washington-based law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. The firm’s location is notable because Scott and other Republicans have been hammering Nelson for hiring a “DC lawyer.” His campaign is represented by well-known Democratic election law attorney Marc Elias, who is from the Washington office of Perkins Coie.
Elias told reporters that he thought that if the signature match lawsuit was successful, it could “add thousands of additional ballots that have so far gone uncounted.” That sentiment is at the heart of the simmering partisan fight: Democrats say the Florida law is disenfranchises voters, while Republicans charge that Nelson is trying to change laws through the court after losing an election.
On the other side, former Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy has filed an affidavit in support of Nelson. He said publicly last week that his vote-by-mail ballot was rejected because his signature did not match the one that was on file. Florida allows people who have voted by mail to check online to see whether their ballots were accepted. Murphy said in his affidavit that he was “surprised” because he had no problem voting by mail during the August primary.
Ahead of the hearing Wednesday, Scott general counsel Dan Nordby told the court that Scott would recuse himself from the Florida Election Canvasing Committee, which is the board that formally signs off on election results. Scott is up by a razor-thin 12,000 vote margin over Nelson in a race that could go to a hand recount, so there had been an open question about whether Scott would continue to play a role in overseeing the election process.
He had faced pressure from outside groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, to recuse himself, but had been silent on the issue until Wednesday morning. He made a similar decision in 2014 when running for reelection.
On the vote counting front, Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher made waves Tuesday night after telling WPBF television in Palm Beach County that their aged vote counting machines were failing and all 179,000 early votes would need to be recounted.
A Leon County court ruled Tuesday night that the Palm Beach County recount effort should get five days beyond the original Thursday deadline to finish a machine recount, but that ruling was halted by a last-minute move by the state sending it to federal court.
Those recount deadlines are also the subject of another one of the lawsuits filed either by Nelson or Democratic groups. His campaign says that the Thursday deadline for county voters to finish their machine recounts is an arbitrary deadline. If counties don’t meet that deadline, election night results could be used under state law, which Elias argued could disenfranchise untold thousands of voters. Scott led Nelson in the Senate race under initial counts.
Other lawsuits filed by Democrats include a challenge to the state’s vote-by-mail ballot deadlines. The Nelson camp wants state law to include mail ballots that were postmarked before election day which is when they are due, but were not delivered in time through no fault of the voter. On Thursday, Nelson also filed a lawsuit against Bay County over that county’s election chief Mark Andersen not turning over public records quick enough. The Nelson camp was seeking records related to Anderson’s admission that the northwest Florida county, which was devastated by Hurricane Michael, accepted some votes by mail and fax, which is not allowed by state law.
The onslaught of lawsuits after Election Day have fueled Republicans‘ most prominent post-election day talking-point: Nelson wants the courts, not voters, to send him back to the Senate for a fourth term. That was highlighted by veteran GOP election law attorney Charlie Spies during a Wednesday morning CNN interview.
“This is all trying to change the rules after the fact,” he said.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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