As Recount Ends, Only 5 Votes Separate Cherfilus-McCormick And Holness. Hundreds Of Ballots Arrived Late. – South Florida Sun Sentinel

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at the Sun Sentinel.

After hours of recounting ballots by machine and by hand, under the hyper-vigilant eyes of teams of prominent election attorneys, the ultra-close South Florida congressional race between Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick and Dale Holness remained far too close to call.

A final outcome won’t come for a week — 10 days after Election Day — at the earliest.

At 9 a.m., Cherfilus-McCormick was three votes ahead of Holness. Seven hours later they were five votes apart — out of 49,073 cast. Another five ballots, possibly more, remain to be counted on Nov. 12.

The ultimate winner of the 20th Congressional District Democratic primary is all-but-guaranteed to become South Florida’s next member of Congress.

“I’ve never seen one this close,” said Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine, who is one of three members of the county’s election Canvassing Board, which conducted the Broward part of Friday’s recount.

Udine and Mitch Ceasar, who was chairman of the Broward Democratic Party from 1996 to 2016, said there have been a handful of similarly close races on lower-profile City Commission races. Ceasar is part of Cherfilus-McCormick’s legal team.

Ceasar said the only other exceedingly close, important Florida recount that comes to mind was the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The state’s electoral votes, and the presidency, went to Bush by 537 votes.

On Friday morning, Cherfilus-McCormick had 11,660 votes, or 23.76%. She had two more at the end of the day.

Holness had 11,657 votes, or 23.75%.

South Florida congressional candidate Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick watches as members of the Broward elections Canvassing Board vote on a questionable ballot at the Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill on Nov. 5, 2021. (Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Both candidates spent most of the day at the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office in Lauderhill, along with their legal teams. About three-quarters of the district’s Democratic voters live in Broward. The rest are Palm Beach County residents.

“I’m optimistic. I’m excited,” Cherfilus-McCormick said after she gained the two votes. “The fact that we’ve even been able to get to this place is a blessing because so many people counted us out.”

Cherfilus-McCormick, CEO of a home health care firm, and Holness, a Broward County commissioner, finished well ahead of the other nine candidates for the Democratic nomination to fill the vacancy created by the death of Congressman Alcee Hastings.

The district’s voters are so overwhelmingly Democratic that the primary winner is the all-but-certain winner of the Jan. 11 special general election.

Holness said he still feels optimistic. “There’s still five ballots here [at the Broward elections office] to be counted.” He’s performed better in Broward than Cherfilus-McCormick, and said he hopes that would help him prevail in the end.

Remaining to be counted: two oversees or military mail ballots and three ballots the Broward elections Canvassing Board decided would also be counted next week. Military and overseas ballots that arrive by Nov. 12 are counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

Late Friday, after the Canvassing Board finished its work for the day, Broward Supervisor of Elections Joe Scott told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that hundreds of ballots arrived at his office after the deadline.

Florida has a strict deadline; mail ballots must be in elections supervisors’ offices by 7 p.m. on Election Day. Postmarks don’t count.

Scott said he’s received 751 ballots after the deadline. The overwhelming majority are from Democrats, though he didn’t have an immediate breakdown. Of those, 273 were postmarked on or before Monday, 123 postmarked on Tuesday, and 56 since. Another 299 didn’t have postmarks.

Legally they won’t count. But Scott said he was troubled by the number of late ballots — and expressed outrage at the U.S. Postal Service.

On Election Day he said he visited the Postal Service sorting facility, in Opa-locka, that serves Broward. He said his staff had contacted the Postal Service on Tuesday morning, but when he arrived he wasn’t allowed in.

He said his request to get inside and see if there were ballot problems was “more than reasonable.”

“I think it’s reasonable for an elections official to come in unannounced especially on Election Day. We need to be able to go into postal facilities to … sweep any ballots that are there.”

He said he’s reached out to U.S. Reps Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ted Deutch, Democrats who combined represent most of Broward, to push them to find a way to ensure the Postal Service honors such requests in the future.

The election has been close since Election Night, and by Thursday evening, after the deadline for voters to correct problems with vote-by-mail ballots, there was a three-vote difference. State law requires a machine recount when there is a difference of 0.5%. Cherfilus-McCormick and Holness are separated by 0.01%.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee formally ordered a machine recount Thursday night, and after the two counties reported the results to the state on Friday, Lee immediately ordered the next step: a manual recount of ballots that where not clearly for one candidate or the other.

Recounting started Friday in Lauderhill and Riviera Beach, with supervisor of elections office staffers running all the ballots through high-speed tabulators.

Also Friday, both candidates’ camps scrutinized many of the 63 mail-ballots that were rejected by the Broward elections Canvassing Board.

Rejections occurred for a range of reasons: no signature, mismatched signatures, the voter moved out of county or out of congressional district, or the voter had died.

South Florida congressional candidate Dale Holness watches as members of the canvassing board vote on a questionable ballot at the Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill on Friday, November 5, 2021. (Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Holness posed multiple questions about rejected ballots to Mary Hall, chief Broward deputy supervisor of elections. He wanted to know, for example, where people had moved or how the elections office staff knew someone had died.

On Friday, the three-member Broward elections Canvassing Board had lengthy discussions about whether seven previously rejected ballots should be opened and counted. They originally were rejected because the signatures didn’t match.

The Canvassing Board — Udine, Scott and county Judge Deborah Carpenter-Toye — accepted some and rejected others.

In two cases, the name or address printed on the ballot envelope didn’t match the person who signed the envelope. Both were from households where another registered voter also lives and requested ballot.

What apparently happened, Scott said, was that Voter A used Voter B’s envelope to return the ballot. The Elections Office verification system kicked out both; ultimately the Canvassing Board voted to approve counting one of those two ballots but not the second.

“Does picking up the wrong envelope and putting it in the mail cause you to lose your right to vote. I don’t think so,” Scott said.

In another case, Scott argued to approve a ballot in which the signature looked different from the one the Elections Office had on file. Scott said the signature on file was from 1995, and the signature has changed. “The signature was neat in 1995. It is sloppy now,” Scott said. “I think it is reasonable that this signature became sloppy over the last 26 years.”

Lawyers for Cherfilus-McCormick objected to approving additional ballots.

Holness attorney Burnadette Norris-Weeks said the Cherfilus-McCormick campaign wanted a double standard. “In Palm Beach County they’re trying to keep everything in. Here they’re trying to keep everything out,” Norris-Weeks said.

Holness has done much better in Broward, so more votes in the county could help him. Cherfilus-McCormick has performed better in Palm Beach County.

Candidate Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, looks over ballots during a hand recount at the Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

One of Cherfilus-McCormick’s attorneys, Larry Davis, disputed that characterization. “Of course we want every valid vote to be counted,” he told the Broward Canvassing Board.

Norris-Weeks was general counsel to former Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes.

The Canvassing Board eventually voted to count three of those ballots. That will happen on Nov. 12

Scott said his office had four overseas-military ballots that have arrived since Tuesday night. Two of the four ballots appear to be postmarked after the Tuesday deadline. Military and overseas ballots are exceptions to the rule that ballots must arrive by 7 p.m. on Election Day. But they don’t count if they were mailed late.

The winner of Democratic primary faces a Republican, a Libertarian and two no party/affiliation candidates in January.

The Power Lunch – Florida Politics Newsletter

Twice-weekly

A lunch-hour look at what’s trending in Florida politics.

Jason Mariner, the winner of the Republican primary, faces questions about his candidacy. The founder of an advertising business, Mariner served time in jail for drug and theft violations he said stemmed from an injury that led to an addiction to prescription drugs.

He discussed his past with voters and the news media before the election, using it to illustrate a path to redemption.

The Fresh Take Florida news service reported Thursday that he didn’t go through the state’s process to restore his civil rights after his imprisonment, something required in Florida for a candidate to hold political office.

It may not have any impact. Election law experts said it’s likely that a state restriction can’t govern congressional candidates whose qualifications are outlined by the U.S. Constitution.