November 14, 2018

Rick Scott won't certify the results of his own election, lawyer says

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Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks during an event in Hialeah, Fla. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Scott McIntyre 775192837

Gov. Rick Scott will not participate in the Elections Canvassing Commission on Tuesday, relieving him from the chance that he could certify — or not — the results of his U.S. Senate race.

Scott had been silent about his participation on the canvassing commission, a relatively obscure board that signs off on the results of each federal, state and multi-county election. The commission consists of Scott and two members of the Cabinet that he chooses.

On Wednesday, his lawyer told U.S. District Judge Mark Walker that Scott plans to recuse himself from the commission, just like he did in 2014, when Scott was running for re-election and also faced the chance of certifying the results of his own election.

Since the other members of the Cabinet were also on the ballot, he appointed then-state Senate President Don Gaetz, Sen. Rob Bradley and Sen. Kelli Stargel to fill in for them on the commission four years ago.

Lawyers for the League of Women Voters of Florida said they want a "neutral third party" to fill in for Scott. The only other member of the Cabinet who could replace him — CFO Jimmy Patronis — is a Scott appointee who also is also on the ballot this year.

November 13, 2018

FDLE commissioner says he's 'deeply troubled' that Pam Bondi thinks he wouldn't investigate voter fraud

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Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen wrote to Attorney General Pam Bondi's yesterday saying he was "deeply troubled" that she thinks he wouldn't investigate voter fraud in the midterm elections.

"I am deeply troubled that you think I have announced that FDLE would not be pursuing any investigation or inquiry into the conduct of elections officials in Broward or Palm Beach counties (or any other county) that may rise to the level of criminal conduct during the 2018 election," Swearingen wrote. "I have made no such announcement."

Swearingen's letter was in response to a letter Bondi had sent him on Sunday questioning his competence, writing that she was "deeply troubled" that he had not opened an investigation into Gov. Rick Scott's unfounded claims of voter fraud in his U.S. Senate race.

"Your duty to investigate this matter is clear," she wrote, adding, "Florida is counting on you."

Swearingen went on to assure her that his office was working with the Secretary of State to watch for crimes in the midterm election, and he said he had already opened a "preliminary inquiry" before she'd sent her letter.

Bondi had criticized Swearingen over claims that FDLE would need a formal letter from the governor to investigate voter fraud.

Swearingen replied that it had been "inaccurately reported" that his office would need a written letter from the governor before pursuing an investigation.

"We simply responded to media inquiries as to whether such a written request had been received and as of the date of this letter it has not," he wrote.

Despite Scott repeatedly claiming there has been "rampant fraud" in his race, he has presented no evidence for it, and state officials, the Palm Beach County state attorney and a Broward County judge have all said they've found no evidence of fraud.

The U.S. Department of Justice was in Palm Beach County monitoring the election, but the agency declined to comment about what observers saw.

-Herald/Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.

November 12, 2018

Trump, Scott and Rubio continue to push claims of Florida voter fraud without evidence

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President Donald Trump and Florida’s two highest-ranking Republicans are continuing to push unfounded claims of voter fraud as the state recounts votes to decide closely watched races for governor, U.S. Senate and agriculture commissioner.

The president said valid ballots in Florida should be thrown out because “an honest vote count is no longer possible.”

Governor Rick Scott said his Democratic U.S. Senate opponent, Bill Nelson, is “clearly trying commit voter fraud to win this election.”

And Republican Senator Marco Rubio said “Democrat lawyers... are here to change the results of the election and Broward is where they plan to do it.”

There is no evidence of voter fraud in Broward County, according to election monitors from the state’s Division of Elections who have been stationed there since at least Election Day. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has not received a request in writing to investigate voter fraud from Scott. And the Florida Department of State said Monday their staff has “not seen any evidence of criminal activity in Broward County at this time. ”

The president suggested Monday that Florida should certify the election based on Election Night vote tallies — even though the state is in the midst of a legally mandated recount. He had previously tweeted that Democrats were trying to “steal two big elections in Florida,” suggesting that Broward County withheld votes during the 2016 presidential election because they were “getting ready to do a ‘number’” on Trump’s margin of victory in Florida and that Democrats “’found’ many votes” in Broward County to help Nelson and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum.

“The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged,” Trump tweeted, while providing no evidence. “An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”

Read more here.

November 09, 2018

Bill Nelson goes back to court Wednesday, challenging Florida’s election signature match law

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Sen. Bill Nelson and his attorneys will head back to U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida Wednesday afternoon in a fight for a ruling that would require ballots with “signature mismatches” be counted.

Nelson is suing the Florida Secretary of State and demanding the state count every mail-in and provisional ballot deemed to have a so-called “signature mismatch.” He also requests Saturday's deadline to canvass ballots be extended until the legal matter is resolved.

The threshold for a recount will be determined by the number of ballots reported by the canvassing board by noon Saturday. Those returns are what will determine recounts in not just the Senate race, but potentially the race for governor, agriculture commissioner and a smattering of statehouse seats.

In the complaint, his attorney wrote that by rejecting and discarding ballots with signature mismatches, the local canvassing boards are disenfranchising the voters who cast them. The complaint accused local canvassing boards of engaging “demonstrably standardless, inconsistent, and unreliable” process that has been shown to result in the “disproportionate rejection of [vote-by-mail] and provisional ballots cast by ethnic and racial minorities, as well as young, first-time voters.”

 

Mohammed Jazil, who is representing Secretary Ken Detzner, said in a hearing Friday that by changing the noon deadline, it would cause problems with the counties that have already submitted their unofficial returns.

He said that by 4 p.m. Friday, 52 of the state's 67 counties have already provided their returns to the state. 

"The counties would have to undo the counts they have already submitted and redo the counts," Jazil said."The recount would have to stop and then restart."

Judge Robert Hinkle, who is overseeing the case, said in scheduling hearing Friday that he doesn’t plan on rushing to make a ruling before noon Saturday.

“The subject this endeavor is to get this right,” he said in the hearing. “It’s far less urgent to have a ruling by noon tomorrow. It’s far more important to do this well.”

The state wants to defend the legality of the statute on signature matching, but Nelson’s side "wants a resolution as quickly possible.”

Nelson, who trails Gov. Rick Scott with a slim 0.18 percent margin, believes the final vote total will continue to move in his favor before a recount is called Saturday.

His election lawyer, Marc Elias, said on a conference call Thursday morning that by the end of the month, the senator will be preparing for a fourth term in Washington.

Broward County was still counting early voting and vote-by-mail ballots Friday. Nelson received 68.9 percent of the votes there in the primary. In Palm Beach County, where Nelson received 58.4 percent of the votes, the canvassing board was still counting vote-by-mail ballots.

November 07, 2018

Ron DeSantis’ transition team includes Matt Gaetz, Richard Corcoran

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Governor elect Ron DeSantis takes the stage with his wife Casey after winning the election over Democrat Andrew Gillum. Photo by Chris Urso, Times Staff photographer

On Tuesday, former Congressman Ron DeSantis became Governor-Elect Ron DeSantis.

On Wednesday, the work began.

DeSantis announced the team that would lead his transition into the governor's mansion Wednesday afternoon.

It includes:

  • Executive Director Susie Wiles, who chaired DeSantis’ successful campaign
  • Deputy Executive Director Scott Parkinson, DeSantis’ former chief of staff
  • Congressman Matt Gaetz
  • Former Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran — who initially endorsed DeSantis’ primary opponent early on in the race
  • Former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux
  • Former Lieutenant Governor Toni Jennings

Gaetz, Corcoran, LeMieux and Jennings will all serve as chairs on the transition team, according to a Wednesday press release.

"I'm confident these individuals will ensure our administration is ready to lead on day one to make our state cleaner, safer and stronger for all Floridians," DeSantis said in a release.

A manual recount for the agriculture commissioner race? Here's what you need to know

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The super-tight race for Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services could have a recount in its future.

Rep. Matt Caldwell, the Republican challenger, leads Fort Lauderdale attorney and lobbyist Nicole "Nikki" Fried by about 0.16 percentage points as of Wednesday morning. The threshold for a manual recount is 0.25 points.

The actual raw numbers Wednesday morning — with a trickle of absentee, military and overseas ballots possibly still to be tallied — put Caldwell ahead of Fried by just 12,521 votes, with just under 8 million votes cast.

"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 said in a statement. “We are going to ensure that every vote is counted, in a race this close, everyones' voices must be heard so the will of the people is upheld.”

Brian Swensen, spokesperson for the Caldwell campaign said, “We will be going through the state’s mandated recount and do not expect the results to change.”

For some perspective, Gov. Rick Scott was ahead of Sen. Bill Nelson in the U.S. Senate race by 34,435 votes Wednesday morning, and a recount seems imminent there.

Ballots go to automatic recount if 0.5 percent of the votes, or less, separate the candidates.

Under state law, the recount can only be triggered by the margin of votes, and in this race it has been met. There isn't an avenue for candidates to request a recount, but a losing candidate can submit a written request that a recount not be held.

Fried has not conceded the race.

The recount will likely take some time. Because the race is statewide, each canvassing board has to notify the Secretary of State the total combined number of overvote and undervote ballots in the county for the affected race. 

Counties have to report first unofficial returns to the state no later than noon on Saturday, according to the Division of Elections. By then, if a race is still within the recount margin, a machine recount will be ordered. Second unofficial returns will be due no later than 3 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 15 if a machine recount is ordered. If any of the races are still within a 0.25 percent margin, a manual recount would then be ordered.

A poll conducted by St. Pete Polls during the last days of early voting showed Fried leading Caldwell in the race by less than one percentage point, well within the margin of error. Caldwell, however, had more than a half million in fundraising over Fried — $1.6 million to her $1 million.

 

What's first on the agenda for Florida's next governor, Ron DeSantis?

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Governor elect Ron DeSantis takes the stage with his wife Casey after winning the election over Democrat Andrew Gillum. Photo by Chris Urso, Times Staff photographer

ORLANDO – It was past midnight on Election Night, and some Ron DeSantis supporters still lingered in the fading glow of the dimly lit ballroom in Orlando’s Rosen Centre Hotel to take pictures as metallic red, white and blue confetti clung to the carpet.

It was a nail-biter of a night, which began with a much different atmosphere, but ended with yet another victory for Republicans.

The question loomed: what’s next?

DeSantis rose to popularity in large part because of an endorsement from President Donald Trump, in addition to championing a low taxes opposed to Gillum’s proposal to hike the corporate income tax to generate $1 billion for education.  As a former Congressman who spent three terms in Washington, many questions remain about how this newcomer to Tallahassee will handle his new role at the helm of the nation’s third-largest state.

He offered some brief insight Tuesday night.

“I think the first priority in terms of what’s really urgent for Florida is really getting us on a strong track on the water quality and the environment so we’ll be taking action very quickly,” he told a gaggle of reporters shortly after making his victory speech at the Rosen Centre Hotel, referring to the toxic green algae seeping out of Lake Okeechobee. “I’ve talked to the president about this ... I told him some of this infrastructure needs to get going. We just got the reservoir off the rise, there's a lot we need to do there."

“We’re also looking forward to appointing the three Supreme Court justices," DeSantis continued. "These will be very, very smart very principled people. They’re going to understand their role is to understand the law, not rewrite the law.”

DeSantis also said that his team has already been moving forward in putting his administration together “behind the scenes” to get a head start on the transition. There’s a short window after the new governor is elected to decide on a slew of state agency appointments plus filling out the governor’s staff.

He also said he hoped Florida would unify because “at some point the campaigns have to stop,” adding that the environment in particular is an issue where he hoped to find bipartisan support.

And finally, he offered a tongue-in-cheek suggestion of what he’d prefer for Andrew Gillum’s future, as well. The two spoke over the phone on Election Night when Gillum called to concede.

“I told him, I was like, ‘Look, you’re a hell of an adversary. I don’t think any other Democrat could’ve done what you did,’” he recounted to reporters. “I was like ‘If you’re going to run in 2022, just run against Rubio, don’t run against me.’”

November 03, 2018

Miami’s ‘sisterhood’ of Democrats makes a closing argument focused on healthcare

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@alextdaugherty

Zero men grabbed the microphone at a rally in front of the Community Bible Baptist Church in South Dade on Saturday.

In a year where Democrats are hoping that an uptick of women candidates can spur a blue wave across the country, Miami’s three women running for Congress — Donna Shalala, Mary Barzee Flores and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell — stood together to make their closing argument to voters and activists.

“It’s been a long road for all of us and I’ve been talking about this sisterhood that we’ve developed, Mary, Donna and I because even though we come from different background and experiences we share the same goals,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “We have to fight for the soul of our country right now.”

Democrats are hoping to send an all-female Miami-Dade delegation to Washington next year, part of 197 female candidates across the country running for the U.S. House and Senate. Their message mirrored the thousands of TV commercials being run across South Florida in the closing weeks of the campaign highlighting healthcare as the most important issue on the ballot this year, after Republicans tried and failed to repeal Obamacare during the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency.

“It’s the year of the woman and look, you know all the issues Democrats stand for,” Shalala said. “Healthcare is a woman’s issue because it’s often the women in the family who determines who goes to the doctor and usually kick their significant other to go. And so eliminating preexisting conditions means that [Republicans] are eliminating health insurance, it’s as simple as that.”

More here.

November 02, 2018

Independents will decide Florida’s statewide elections, but polling them is tricky

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@alextdaugherty

Independent voters are the white whale of Florida elections.

They cannot vote in closed primaries, so they didn’t play a part in electing Andrew Gillum or Ron DeSantis in August, and typically turn out in lower numbers in years when a president isn’t on the ballot.

But a national environment dominated by President Donald Trump, combined with record-breaking spending in the U.S. Senate race between Bill Nelson and Rick Scott, have focused the political world’s attention on Florida. The intense interest is reflected in an uptick among all voters in early voting, including independents.

Statewide polls conducted in the past month show a massive variance among voters who are not affiliated with the Democratic or Republican Party. One poll conducted by the University of North Florida this week shows Gillum with a 25 percentage point lead over DeSantis among independents and Nelson leading Scott by 17 points. Another poll conducted by CBS/YouGov this week shows DeSantis and Scott both winning independents by 13 percentage points.

and Nelson with slight leads within the margin of error. For example, the UNF poll showed Gillum with a 6 percentage point lead and Nelson with a 1 percentage point lead, while the CBS poll showed Gillum up by 1 percentage point and Nelson in a tie with Scott.

Accurately polling voters who don’t identify or aren’t registered with either party is a tricky proposition.

“When you’re dealing with small samples like that, it gets really difficult to get a good sense of what they’re doing exactly as a group,” said Michael Binder, the director of the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Library. “The margin of error for that is relatively high. That’s just a problem you have.”

More here.

November 01, 2018

Ex-Patronis staffer sues, saying she was fired after not donating to campaign

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A senior employee with the Department of Financial Services has sued her boss, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, alleging she was fired for not donating to his campaign or attending a fundraiser event for his reelection.

According to a complaint filed Monday, Christine Taul, a 32-year veteran of the department, received a phone call at work from a third party inviting her to a fundraiser being held for the CFO on Aug. 20. The caller told Taul, a registered Democrat, to "bring a check." 

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Tallahassee Wednesday. 

Taul was scheduled to leave Tallahassee for a vacation on the day of the fundraiser, but said she wouldn't attend anyway because of her differing political views. 

When she returned from her vacation on Aug. 27, she was told she would be terminated. Taul, who had been an administrator for the CFO's risk management program since 1994, resigned instead. In September, Taul's attorneys sent a letter to the CFO's office in demanding she be reinstated with full backpay. 

The department's general counsel, Chasity O'Steen, said the department did not know of any third party activity, and that attributing the phone to the CFO's office was an "erroneous assumption." O'Steen said Taul was terminated because she failed to show improvement after mandatory remedial trainings in April 2018. Taul was also responsible for an employee who lied about her hours on a timesheet. 

O'Steen said the department was within its rights to discipline Taul for her poor performance, even after counseling and remedial trainings. The trainings were held by an employee relations manager, and were meant to be a "refresher," according to emails obtained from the office. 

Taul's personnel file, however, shows she received a "commendable" overall rating in 2017. Her manager wrote that she is a "valued asset to the Division" and that her "experience and knowledge are often utilized in solving complicated issues." 

Patronis, a Panama City republican and former state representative, was appointed into the role in 2017 after Jeff Atwater resigned for a position at Florida Atlantic University. He is running against former state senator and Yahoo executive Democrat Jeremy Ring, of Broward County.

"The timing of this ridiculous accusation seems like a sad politically based attack," said Patronis' campaign spokeswoman Katie Strickland. 

Taul's attorney denied that the accusation was political.

"If this was a sleazy election tactic, then we wouldn't have tried to be reinstated without litigation," Ryan Andrews. "We wouldn't have asked Mr. Patronis to reinstate with no harm, no foul. "