Race for state Commissioner of Agriculture heading to possible manual recount

Race for state Commissioner of Agriculture heading to possible manual recount
Matt Caldwell and Nikki Fried

SARASOTA (WWSB/AP) - Despite a declaration of victory Tuesday night by Republican Matt Caldwell, the race for Florida agriculture commissioner likely will require a recount, joining expected recounts in the U.S. Senate race and race for Florida governor.

Caldwell, a state House member from North Fort Myers, led by less than 13,000 votes late Wednesday morning in the Cabinet race against Democrat Nikki Fried. Caldwell declared victory Tuesday night at an election-watch party.

By Thursday afternoon, with more ballots being counted, that had flipped and Fried led Caldwell by 575 votes. Slightly more than 8 million votes were cast in the race, according to numbers posted by the Florida Division of Elections.

“This is the closest race since we’ve seen here in Florida since Bush v. Gore in 2000 - we’re heading into a recount,” Fried, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and lobbyist, said in a prepared statement Wednesday morning. “We are going to ensure that every vote is counted, in a race this close, everyone’s voices must be heard so the will of the people is upheld.”

The state elections website had Fried with 50 percent of the vote with 4,019,027 ballots cast to 50 percent for Caldwell with 4,018,452 ballots cast.

If this race or any other state race, such as the race for U.S. Senate between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, requires a recount, there is no need to worry about it being a repeat of the 2000 presidential debacle — there won’t be any hanging chads and the process is likely to take days, not a month.

Under state law in Florida, a recount is mandatory if the winning candidate’s margin is 0.5 percentage points or less. That will be determined this weekend by Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner after the canvassing boards in each of Florida’s 67 counties certify their returns. The recount, if ordered, would likely begin Monday.

The process, if it goes forward, will be different than the one that gained international notoriety in 2000, when the Supreme Court ordered an end to vote counting in Florida after a month, allowing Republican George W. Bush to claim the presidency with 537 votes.

At the time, each county had its own voting system. Many used punch cards — voters poked out chads, leaving tiny holes in their ballots representing their candidates. Some voters, however, didn't fully punch out the presidential chad or gave it just a little push. Those hanging and dimpled chads had to be examined by the canvassing boards, a lengthy and tiresome process that became fodder for late-night comedians.

Now, all Florida counties use ballots where voters use a pen to fill in a bubble next to their candidate's name, much like a student does when taking a multiple-choice test. When voters finish marking their ballots, they run them through a scanning machine that records the count. The ballot is stored inside the machine.

If the recount happens, each county will again run each Senate ballot through a scanner under the watchful eye of representatives of both sides. Ballots that cannot be read because they aren't marked or mismarked will be set aside.

If the statewide margin then falls below 0.25 percentage points, Detzner will order a manual recount in each county. Rejected ballots will be examined by counting teams to determine if the voters' intentions were obvious. If either side objects to a counting team's decision or the team can't make a decision, the ballot will be forwarded to the county's canvassing board, with the three members voting on the final decision. The members are the county supervisor of elections, a judge and the chair of the county commissioners.

The process will likely be finished in days.

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