Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Florida Could Be Headed For Recounts: Here's How They Would Work

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (left) and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson are in a close Senate race, which may trigger a recount.
Joe Raedle and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (left) and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson are in a close Senate race, which may trigger a recount.

Updated at 1:40 p.m. ET

As ballots are still being counted in Florida, the state is likely headed toward recounts in three races, including those for Senate and governor. Florida's first-ever statewide manual recount is now a possibility as the margin of votes between incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott tightens.

Scott turned up the heat Thursday night, alleging voter fraud in a press conference. Though they were without evidence, his claims were amplified by President Trump Thursday night on Twitter and outside the White House Friday.

The governor's race between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis is also looking at a potential machine recount as more ballots counted for Gillum have lessened the gap between him and his opponent to about 36,000 votes, as of 9:30 a.m. ET Friday. That's under the 0.5 percent threshold for a recount.

Though it is garnering less attention, the state's race for the commissioner of Agriculture between Republican Matt Caldwell and Democrat Nicole Fried is in a dead heat. This is the closest statewide race, where each candidate has received a share of roughly 50 percent of the votes. Fried pulled ahead of Caldwell, but the candidates were separated by fewer than 3,000 as of Friday morning.

This puts them at under a 0.04 percent difference, making a machine recount order on Saturday almost certain.

Here's what's happening and how the recounts would work:

How close is the Senate race?

As of Friday morning, Nelson is roughly 15,000 votesbehind Rick Scott, putting him well within the state's 0.5 percent of the total votes cast threshold for an automatic recount and within the 0.25 percent threshold needed to trigger a manual recount.

The new tallies are partly a result of updated vote counts from Broward County Thursday afternoon, where Nelson captured about 69 percent of the vote. Nelson is currently raising money on his website for the recount and has lawyered up in preparation.

Nelson's lawyer, Marc Elias, has issued a statement saying, "We're doing this not just because it's automatic, but we're doing it to win."

Meanwhile, his opponent declared victory on election night and has expressed disdain for the recount.

"Let's be clear: When Elias says 'win,' he means 'steal,' " Rick Scott's campaign said.

The pressure is on, and all eyes are on Broward and Palm Beach Counties, where votes are still being counted. Rick Scott has filed lawsuits against the supervisors of elections in both counties, accusing them of "rampant fraud." You can find the Broward County lawsuit here and the Palm Beach County lawsuit here.

"It's been over 48 hours since polls closed and Broward and Palm Beach County are still finding and counting ballots, and the supervisors Brenda Snipes and Susan Bucher cannot seem to say how many ballots still exist and where these ballots came from or where they have been," Scott said in a press conference Thursday night. "I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election."

NPR was unable to reach the supervisor of elections in either county for comment.

Democratic strategist Steven Schale said that the final vote counts likely won't be ready until Saturday, where Florida's secretary of state will determine whether or not to order a recount, based on the first unofficial return results.

"Between now and Saturday, vote counts are likely to shift a little," he said. "But I think it's pretty safe to say that it's going to be inside that 0.25 percent by Saturday when they certify the results."

What about the governor's race?

In the Florida governor's race, Democrat Andrew Gillum conceded to Republican Ron DeSantis on election night and the AP called the race for DeSantis.

But newly counted ballots have pushed Gillum's share of the vote within the recount range of 0.5 percentage points. As of Friday morning, Gillum is trailing DeSantis by roughly 36,000 votes, representing about 0.45 percentage points.

The Gillum campaign says it "is monitoring the situation closely and is ready for any outcome, including a state-mandated recount."

Will there be recounts?

It's likely, but depends on Saturday's final vote tally. If the difference between Nelson and Scott is within 0.5 percent of the total votes cast, Florida state law mandates an automatic recount. The same rules apply to the governor's race.

Currently, each of Florida's 67 counties are working on delivering unofficial returns by noon on Saturday. During this time, each county investigates and processes their provisional ballots, which are ballots used when there are questions about a voter's eligibility. In order for a provisional ballot vote to count, questions about the voter's eligibility must be resolved by this Saturday.

On Thursday afternoon, Paul Lux, the supervisor of elections in Okaloosa County, and his team were working to investigate and process his county's 126 provisional ballots. If a voter's signature matches their voter registration, it gets counted.

Later in the evening, voters had an opportunity to present their proof of eligibility for provisional ballots that are still under scrutiny. The rest are deemed ineligible for various reasons, such as a voter failing to register to vote by the deadline. Lux estimates that typically, about one-third of his provisional ballots get counted as official votes.

Lux noted on Thursday afternoon that no recount can be ordered until every county sends in their unofficial vote tallies, but he said he is preparing to work on a recount.

"I'll be submitting my unofficial tally tonight, and I won't be doing anything tomorrow except waiting for the inevitable recount," he said.

While Lux was ready to submit his unofficial vote returns Thursday, other, larger counties may submit their returns closer to the Saturday deadline.

For example, Miami-Dade county, the most populous in Florida, has a total of 989 provisional ballots to sort through before they can submit their unofficial vote returns.

When will we know about whether there are recounts?

Saturday afternoon.

After unofficial vote returns are submitted by Saturday at noon, the Florida secretary of state will make a decision on whether or not to order recounts.

How would a recount work?

A machine recount (within 0.5 percent):

If a candidate is defeated by a margin that represents 0.5 percent or less of the total votes cast, state law will trigger an automatic machine recount, which would then be ordered by the Florida secretary of state. The losing candidate can prevent a recount with a written request that it not be conducted.

In a machine recount, ballots would be put back into the machine to be retabulated — with the exception of overvotes and undervotes, which are separated, or outstacked, and not counted.

An overvote is when voters seem to choose too many options on their ballot, such as filling out two or more candidate bubbles for one position. An undervote is when a voter has seemingly not filled out any option for a position. In both cases, the vote is unable to be counted by the machine and is considered a spoiled vote.

If the machine recount is ordered, then each county would need to submit their second unofficial returns (vote tallies) by 3 p.m. on Nov. 15. After that, the secretary of state and Division of Elections will determine whether or not it is necessary to order a manual recount.

A manual recount (within 0.25 percent):

If Nelson loses by an even narrower margin of 0.25 percent or less of the total votes cast after the machine recount is finished, the Florida secretary of state would need to order an automatic manual recount, according to state law.

If the losing candidate requests in writing that a recount not be conducted, the recount does not need to be ordered.

In a manual recount, ballots would still be retabulated in voting machines, but the outstacked ballots that were previously not counted because they were considered overvotes or undervotes, would be manually examined.

"We need to go back to those ballots to see if the voter marked the ballot in some way that we can use to count their vote," Lux explained.

There are rules for determining voter intent when inspecting ballots manually, which can be found here.

The deadline for counties to submit tallies from these votes, which would be considered the official returns, would be noon on Sunday, Nov. 18.

The possibility of three recounts will complicate matters Lux said, and likely place stress on those working on the recounts.

"More recount votes makes it more complicated," he said. "That's what adds to the wrinkle."

However, he added that he is confident in the process.

You can find a summary of the recount procedures here.

What's the timeline for a recount?

Saturday, Nov. 10: The first unofficial returns are due from each county by noon. The Florida secretary of state will then decide whether to order machine recounts.

Thursday, Nov. 15: If a machine recount was ordered, the second unofficial returns are due from each county by 3 p.m. The Florida secretary of state will then decide whether to order manual recount.

Sunday, Nov. 18: Official returns are due from each county no later than noon. If a manual recount was ordered, this is when the recount tally results are due by.

You can find a more detailed information on a recount and the recount timeline here.

Is the recount likely to change the results?

That depends.

If you ask Nelson's lawyer, he believes a recount will be advantageous for Nelson.

"We believe at the end of this process Sen. Nelson will be declared the winner and will be returned to the Senate," Elias said in a conference call Thursday.

He gave reasons for his optimism, including uncounted ballots in Palm Beach County, where he said there are an excess of 10,000 ballots that need to be reviewed, and an unusual undervote pattern in Broward County, both of which are left-leaning. He also claimed that based on his past experience working with recounts, Democrats tended to do better in recounts.

However, Rick Scott's team remains confident in their victory.

Chris Hartline, a spokesman for Scott's campaign, issued a statement saying, "This race is over. It's a sad way for Bill Nelson to end his career. He is desperately trying to hold on to something that no longer exists."

Republican strategist Scott Miller agreed that the recount was not likely to change the result, but said that Nelson winning was a possibility.

"He's got to make up 30,000 votes, and the chances are that these additional votes are going to be split 50/50," Miller said. "It's not impossible, it's just a long shot, but it's a long shot worth taking."

Democratic strategist Steven Schale agreed, but said that undervotes and overvotes could play a significant role if a manual recount is triggered.

"History says things don't move too much in the recount, but in Broward County there are reports of thousands of undervotes in the Senate race," Schale said. "I'd like to see what those look like."

Brian E. Corley, supervisor of Elections in Pasco County, said that he didn't want to speculate on whether the results will change statewide, but said that he thinks most of the undervotes and overvotes will end up being counted, based on his prior experience.

"When determining voter intent, I'm comfortable saying that a clear majority of those votes are pretty obvious," he said.

Schale added that a recount would be valuable not just for candidates but for Floridian residents, too.

"There's so much distrust in politics lately that the manual recount will give people confidence in the outcome," he said.

Why are Florida races always so close?

The state is fairly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

"If you look at party registration, Florida is close to 50-50," Lux said. "Florida is the first actual swing state of all 50 states."

In 2018, there are 4,661,230 registered Republican voters and 4,918,415 registered Democratic voters according to the Florida Department of State. There are also 3,521,905 voters not registered with either party and 99,322 registered with minor parties.

Though there always seems to be speculation that Florida will start leaning more Democratic due to an increased Latino population, Schale contends that you have just as much growth in the elderly white population, which is thought to vote more Republican.

"It causes the state to be very competitive," he said, pointing out that several recent gubernatorial races have had close margins.

Another reason for the state's division is that it seems to have an even split between urban, Democratic areas such as Miami in the south, and rural, Republican areas like northern Florida. This is a landscape that Miller thinks is shifting in favor of the political left.

"The urban centers are creeping up, we're getting more urbanized in the North," Miller said. "For now the North is holding it's own. As for Florida's identity, we're still a fairly conservative state — to a large degree we have a large Republican infrastructure — but I wouldn't be surprised to see Florida in 20 years be more open to liberal politics."

For 2020 however, Lux said his only prediction is another tightly divided election.

"I can tell you in 2020 how New York and Texas is going to vote, but I can't tell you how Florida's going to vote," he said.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit

Corrected: November 8, 2018 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous version of this story inaccurately reported that the Florida secretary of state could order either a machine or manual recount on Nov. 10. In fact, a machine recount must be completed before a possible manual recount.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.