Eight million people voted in Florida. As three potential recounts loom, lawyers take charge.

As the counting continues in Broward and Palm Beach counties, three statewide races get even closer.
Barry Richard, center, attorney for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, presents oral arguments to members of the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee, Fla., on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2000, in the Florida presidential ballot recount case. (AP Photo/Charles Archambault, Pool)
Barry Richard, center, attorney for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, presents oral arguments to members of the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee, Fla., on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2000, in the Florida presidential ballot recount case. (AP Photo/Charles Archambault, Pool)
Published November 8 2018
Updated November 8 2018

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Republicans and Democrats are assembling red and blue armies of lawyers as the state faces an historic challenge of up to three statewide election recounts, all at the same time.

As clerks counted more ballots Thursday, races for U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner got closer. That increased the chance that all three will be subject to hand recounts of tens of thousands of ballots where voters chose no candidate or more than one candidate.

"I see 2000 hanging over our heads again. It's a mess," said Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee lawyer and election law specialist.

Less than 48 hours after Republican Gov. Rick Scott declared victory as Florida's next senator in a Naples hotel ballroom, he accused Democratic rival Bill Nelson of trying to "steal" an election he had "already lost," with a machine recount pending.

As Scott's precarious lead continued to erode, he, like Nelson, signed up more legal talent. Scott's team included Bill Scherer, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and veteran of the 2000 recount wars known for an aggressive style.

Scherer stood watch over an afternoon meeting of the canvassing board in Fort Lauderdale, where vote-counting continues in the county that's most crucial to Nelson's hopes — Broward, where he got 69 percent of the vote.

The canvassing board met to review an estimated 660 provisional ballots, cast by voters who lacked IDs or went to the wrong precincts. Those voters had until 5 p.m. Thursday to provide proof of identity.

Scherer criticized Broward Supervisor of Elections Dr. Brenda Snipes for the slow pace of ballot-counting, two days after the polls have closed.

"She's got stacks and stacks of ballots here. It makes you wonder what's going on," Scherer said.

Snipes, whose operation has often been the subject of criticism, said: "We all went home at about 2:30 this morning … We're finishing up with the count as we speak, and we've got to get every vote in. We're not going to rush through it."

Another veteran of the 2000 legal battles, Mitchell Berger, a long-time Democratic donor and friend of Al Gore, joined the Florida Democratic Party's legal team.

When Florida became the center of world attention after the deadlocked 2000 presidential election, Republicans moved with greater speed and aggressiveness — and Democrats didn't forget it.

Scherer said it appears both sides would have lawyers in all 67 counties in anticipation of recounts that may begin as soon as Sunday and continue on Monday, Veterans' Day — a state holiday.

Scott and Nelson asked all counties for the names of everyone who cast a provisional ballot.

Some counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Hernando, quickly complied, saying the information is public record under state law. Other counties, such as Pasco and Okaloosa, refused, saying disclosure would violate a state law protecting the secret ballot.

Miami-Dade Democrats issued an alert for volunteers to track down the more than 3,000 people who cast provisional ballots.

Broward Democrats opened a storefront office in Fort Lauderdale to find provisional voters, but the 56-page list provided by Snipes' office lacked such information as the voters' addresses or phone numbers.

Former state Sen. Chris Smith said the effort took on added urgency because Nikki Fried, the Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner, is from Broward.

"It feels like 2000, but more on a local level," Smith said.

Meyer said a refusal by some counties to disclose that information meant that they couldn't be contacted for assistance and that it could result in a lawsuit, but it was too soon to tell.

One of many legal issues drawing attention was a drop-off in votes cast in the Senate race in Broward.

About 25,000 fewer voters cast a vote in that race than in other statewide races, even though it was listed first on the ballot. But it was listed at the bottom of a column that dealt mostly with voting instructions.

Marc Elias, a Washington lawyer representing Nelson, dismissed ballot design as the reason. He said the dropoff was likely a result of a machine malfunction or ballots with markings that tabulation machines rejected, and he predicted Nelson would be the winner after a recount.

All 67 counties have until noon Saturday to report their first sets of unofficial returns to Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who will then order machine recounts in races where candidates are separated by half of one percentage point or less.

That's a prospect dreaded by counties, who face inevitable legal battles with lawyers for both sides.

During a conference call with election supervisors, Detzner told them: "The recounts will be nationally watched … (we're) under a microscope."

Adding to the legal woes, Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher told Detzner that her voting equipment, certified by his office, can't recount ballots in more than one race at one time.

State officials said they can't extend the deadlines. They reminded Bucher that if she is not able to meet a recount deadline, the county's most recent unofficial results would be counted instead.

Elections officials who have been through past recounts, such as Okaloosa's Paul Lux, warned about surprise visits from lawyers like the one who visited him at his office in Crestview.

"He didn't even know what the hell we were doing with the election," Lux said. "You're going to spend half your time educating them."

Times staff writer Lawrence Mower and Miami Herald staff writers Nicholas Nehemas, David Smiley and Jay Weaver contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.