Election recount is 'deja vu' with added fuel for most Floridians

Democrats are holding rallies, demanding that every vote be counted. Republicans are raising the specter of fraud, accusing Democrats of attempting to “steal” elections. Lawsuits are grabbing headlines, and fundraising requests are flooding inboxes.

And folks on both sides of the aisle, including candidates, are recruiting attorneys and support staff to monitor activities in Florida’s 67 counties as officials recount votes from Tuesday’s elections.

The stakes aren’t as high as the first time the Sunshine State found itself the focus of an unwelcome elections spotlight nearly two decades ago, when the presidency hung in the balance.

But for many who participated in Florida’s protracted recount between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the partisan posturing now is a flashback to an equally divisive period in the nation’s history.

“It’s 2000 all over again, with the gasoline of digital and social media, which we didn’t have then, added to the fire,” Screven Watson, who served as the Florida Democratic Party’s executive director during Bush v. Gore, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Saturday.

Hanging chads are no longer an issue in Florida, but delays in vote totals in Democrat-rich Broward and Palm Beach counties have drawn the ire of Republicans such as Gov. Rick Scott, who saw his 56,000-vote advantage over U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson on election night shrink to fewer than 13,000 votes by noon Saturday.

Scott said Thursday he asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to probe election wrongdoing in Broward and Palm Beach. A spokeswoman for the agency said Friday that, although FDLE is working with Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s office, there were no active investigations. Scott upped the ante by alerting county sheriffs to “be on the alert for any violations and take appropriate action.”

Nelson’s recount lawyer, Marc Elias, derided Scott’s FDLE request as indicative of a “Third World dictatorship.”

The rhetoric continued to build as the numbers narrowed, with Detzner on Saturday ultimately ordering recounts in the U.S. Senate race, the gubernatorial matchup between Republican Ron DeSantis and Democratic Andrew Gillum and the agriculture-commissioner race between Republican Matt Caldwell and Democrat Nikki Fried.

Coinciding with a noon Saturday deadline for county elections offices to submit their preliminary results to the state, Scott’s campaign held a conference call with reporters and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who, like Scott, is closely aligned with President Donald Trump.

Graham said Republicans consider Scott the winner of the heated contest and launched into an indictment of Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes.

“People of Florida and throughout the nation are tired of all of these shenanigans coming out of Broward County,” Graham said. “I cannot tell you how upsetting it is to have two counties in your state of Florida constantly be a problem at every level. I know the people of Florida deserve better and quite frankly the people of the United States deserve better.”

Graham’s call came less than 24 hours after Nelson blasted an email to supporters seeking contributions to build up his legal fund in anticipation of an expensive recount.

“I need a miracle,” the subject line in Nelson’s fundraising alert read.

The results of a machine recount are due to Detzner’s office by 3 p.m. Thursday, and the matchup between Nelson and Scott appears headed to a manual recount after that. Machine recounts are required when the margins between candidates are 0.5 percent or less, while subsequent manual recounts are triggered when margins are 0.25 percent of less. As of Saturday, Nelson and Scott were 0.15 percent apart.

Former Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho, who was in the job during the 2000 recount, said Republicans and Democrats need to stay on the sidelines while the final votes are being tallied.

“These individuals should keep their mouths shut” and “let the ballots be counted,” Sancho told the News Service on Saturday.

Scott and his supporters have repeatedly used the words “fraud” and “shenanigans” to disparage Nelson, Snipes and Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher —- all Democrats.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because if it’s not true, they (Republicans) still tar the Democrats as cheaters, and they still get an issue they can use in future elections. So in this case, the truth doesn’t matter,” Sancho said.

Echoing a refrain used by critics of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election, chants of “Lock her up!” could be heard outside the Lauderhill election headquarters of Snipes on Saturday.

The increasingly nasty vibe sparked a reminder of the 2000 events for Watson.

“What I’m reading and listening and hearing from people, it is total déjà vu here. There were fraud allegations. There were people picketing. There were people chanting,” he said. “This is very, very similar in terms of the things that were alleged. They were alleging fraud, and abuse and incompetence on all sides.”

Watson said people from around the world contacted him in 2000. Some of their advice was questionable, he recalled.

“I had psychics and fortune tellers in Germany faxing me maps in Florida with ‘x’ marks where they had seen missing ballots,” Watson said. “And they would call me and make sure I got it.”

Eighteen years later, social media has made contact between the public and campaigns instantaneous, Watson said.

“But it was very similar. … The presidency’s not at stake. The Senate’s not at stake. What’s at stake is this divided country, and digital and social media are going to implode,” he said.

Republican political operative J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich was a close adviser to former Gov. Jeb Bush and played a critical role in the 2000 recount.

While he, too, sees many similarities in the two elections, Stipanovich called Republicans’ efforts to erode the public’s confidence in Florida elections unprecedented.

“What you’re doing is you’re delegitimizing the electoral process. Both parties are. And that’s ultimately fraught with risk,” Stipanovich said.

Two decades “makes all the difference in the world in American politics,” Stipanovich said.

“Everything is, on both sides, so much coarser, so more angry. It’s different,” he said.

Throughout Saturday, demands from the candidates’ supporters and third-party groups continued to escalate. “Trying to STEAL two big elections in Florida! We are watching closely!” Trump tweeted Saturday afternoon.

The SAVE political committee, a group supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender causes, sent out an email alert seeking volunteers —- including lawyers —- to staff recounts in each of the 67 counties. Republican and Democratic groups issued similar requests.

Saturday afternoon, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause asked Scott to “immediately relinquish authority and remove yourself from any control of any person or agency responsible for the processing and counting of ballots.”

Accompanied by his attorney Barry Richard during a news conference Saturday afternoon, Gillum said he will “accept whatever the outcome is of the elections, so long as every single vote in this process is counted.”

“I am replacing my word of concession with an uncompromised and apologetic call that we count every single vote” said Gillum, who conceded the governor’s race to DeSantis on Tuesday night and trailed by more than 33,000 votes Saturday.

—- News Service of Florida staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this report.

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