Employees at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office check a machine as they sort ballots before being counted, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Lauderhill, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Judge: Sides in Florida recount should 'ramp down' rhetoric

November 12, 2018 - 7:37 pm
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — After Republicans, including President Donald Trump, made unsubstantiated accusations of illegal activity, a judge on Monday urged the warring sides in the Florida recount to "ramp down the rhetoric," saying it erodes public confidence in the election for Senate and governor.

The state's law enforcement arm and elections monitors have found no evidence of wrongdoing, but lawyers for the Republican party and the GOP candidates joined with Trump in alleging that irregularities, unethical behavior and fraud have taken place since the polls closed last week.

"An honest vote count is no longer possible" in Florida, Trump declared Monday, without elaborating. He demanded that the election night results — which showed the Republicans leading based upon incomplete ballot counts — be used to determine the winner.

Trump went on to allege that "new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged," and that ballots are "massively infected." It was unclear what he was referring to.

The recount that is underway is mandated by state law.

Much of the Republicans' ire was centered on Democrat-leaning Broward County and its Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, a Democrat who was appointed in 2003 by then-Republican governor Jeb Bush. She has been re-elected four times. Critics have suggested the slow pace of ballot-counting in Broward is suspicious.

Broward elections officials have said this year's count was encumbered by the unexpectedly high turnout for a midterm election and the unusual length of this year's ballots, which contained 12 state constitutional amendment proposals, partly as a result of a constitutional revision commission that meets once every 20 years.

Bush said Monday on Twitter that Snipes should be removed from office, saying there was "no question" that she "failed to comply with Florida law on multiple counts, undermining Floridians' confidence in our electoral process."

Snipes acknowledged Monday that "there have been issues that haven't gone the way we wanted." She said "you can call it a mistake or you can call it whatever you want to call it."

She declined to comment on Trump's remarks, except to say that "we're in an era where people oftentimes speak without having vetted the information, so I'm not sure where the president gets his information from."

She said she had not spoken with Trump.

The president's allegations came just hours before Broward Chief Circuit Judge Jack Tuter held an emergency hearing on a request by lawyers for Republican Gov. Rick Scott, whose lead in the Senate race over incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson has narrowed with the counting of provisional and other ballots. They asked for additional sheriff's deputies to be sent to Snipes' office to monitor ballots and voting machines. The lawyers requested that the deputies be present when the ballots and voting machines are not being used and until the recount is over.

State law requires a machine recount in races where the margin is less than 0.5 percentage points. In the Senate race, Scott's lead over Nelson was 0.14 percentage points. In the governor's contest, unofficial results showed Republican former Rep. Ron DeSantis ahead of Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by 0.41 percentage points.

Once the recount is complete, if the differences in any of the races are 0.25 percentage points or less, a hand recount will be ordered. All 67 counties face a state-ordered deadline of Thursday to finish their recounts.

Meanwhile, the elections supervisor in heavily Republican Bay County said he allowed about 150 people to cast ballots by email, the Miami Herald reported. The county was devastated by a Category 4 hurricane in October, and Scott ordered some special provisions for early voting there. A statement that accompanied the order noted that returning ballots by email was not allowed under state law.

In their Broward request, Scott's lawyers alleged that Snipes was engaging in "suspect and unlawful vote counting practices" that violate state law and that she might "destroy evidence of any errors, accidents or unlawful conduct." The motion was supported by lawyers representing the state Republican Party and opposed by Snipes' office, Nelson's campaign and the state Democratic Party.

"I am urging because of the highly public nature of this case to ramp down the rhetoric," Tuter said.

"If someone in this lawsuit or someone in this county has evidence of voter fraud or irregularities at the supervisor's office, they should report it to their local law enforcement officer," Tuter said. "If the lawyers are aware of it, they should swear out an affidavit, but everything the lawyers are saying out there in front of the elections office is being beamed all over the country. We need to be careful of what we say. Words mean things these days."

After Tuter told all sides to meet to discuss a compromise, they agreed to add three deputies to the elections office in Broward.

During the hearing, Scott lawyer Jason Zimmerman argued that Snipes has a long history of election errors and irregularities. He said the only goal of the request was to "protect the integrity of the vote."

Snipes' lawyer, Eugene Pettis, said Snipes' office already has deputies, security guards and cameras guarding the ballots, and the recount process is conducted in view of four representatives each from the Republicans and Democrats.

Also on Monday, two voter-rights groups filed suit in federal court in Tallahassee. Common Cause and the League of Women Voters sought to remove Gov. Rick Scott from any role in the recount.

Bipartisan experts agree that voter fraud is a rare phenomenon across the nation. That didn't stop protests outside Snipes' office, where a mostly Republican crowd gathered, holding signs, listening to country music and occasionally chanting "lock her up," referring to Snipes. A massive Trump 2020 flag flew over the parking lot.

Other states are also waiting on key races to be decided. In the Georgia governor's race, Republican Brian Kemp holds a narrow lead over Democrat Stacey Abrams. In the Arizona Senate race, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema is ahead of Republican Martha McSally by more than 30,000 votes.

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Associated Press writers Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Kelli Kennedy in Riviera Beach and Josh Replogle in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this report.

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For AP's complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics .

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