LAUDERHILL, Fla. — In the chaos that has swirled over the vote count in Florida following Tuesday’s midterm elections, one headline made its way ominously around the state: A teacher in Broward County had discovered a box labeled “provisional ballots,” left behind at the polling place at her school.
Mishandled ballots? Incomplete vote count? Florida’s Republican Senator, Marco Rubio, fanned public suspicion. “I don’t know what’s in this sealed box found this morning by #BrowardSheriff,” he said on Twitter. “But this dysfunction in #Broward Elections is not acceptable. At a minimum, it undermines public trust in the election & creates opportunity for mischief.”
As it turned out, there was no mischief. The mystery box, seen in photos all over social media, contained not ballots but supplies — pens, envelopes, signs advising people to “Vote Here.”
But it was too late: the fluid vote tally in three statewide races and repeated claims of possible fraud by Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott — who is running in a still-contested Senate race — were enough to convince many Floridians that widespread election theft was underway.
“For all I know, they’re still counting ballots for Al Gore back there!” said Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican from the Florida Panhandle who traveled south to raise alarms over the vote count.
To make his point, he stood in the back of a rental truck filled with boxes labeled “ballots,” meant to symbolize the large number of votes that were counted long after the election in Broward County — votes that helped cost Republican politicians their sizable leads in the governor and Senate races.
On Sunday, as three statewide recounts were underway, Mr. Scott, whose initial 56,000-vote lead over the Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson, has dwindled to fewer than 13,000, filed emergency motions in court asking law enforcement agents to impound and secure voting machines when they are not in use.
The latest legal maneuvering came amid growing doubts over the progress of the recounts, required under state law for races — in this case, for governor, Senate and state agriculture commissioner — where the candidates are separated by margins of 0.5 percent or less.
The national Republican Party accused Broward County’s supervisor of elections, Brenda C. Snipes, of “incompetence and gross mismanagement” after a problem with a vote-counting machine delayed a scheduled check of the vote-counting equipment.
Palm Beach County’s elections supervisor, Susan Bucher, said that her county’s machines are too old to conduct three full recounts as quickly as required, and the county would be unable to meet the deadline on Thursday.
Florida’s protracted 2018 midterm election has revealed the warts of an imperfect voting system that normally go unnoticed. This time, the world is watching, and South Florida election officials are being exposed for sloppy processes that in some cases, a judge found this week, violated both state law and the Constitution.
Yet those very procedures are common during elections, political analysts in Florida say; they just don’t get much attention most of the time because most elections end with wide enough margins of victory that few people scrutinize them.
Repeated claims of mismanagement and worse by Mr. Scott and Mr. Rubio have drawn a backlash from Democrats, who said the governor’s order to law enforcement to impound voting machines was inappropriate.
“In suing to seize ballots and impound voting machines, Rick Scott is doing his best to impersonate Latin American dictators who have overthrown Democracies in Venezuela and Cuba,” Juan Peñalosa, the state Democratic Party director, said in a statement. “The governor is using his position to consolidate power by cutting at the very core of our democracy.”
But some number of irregularities do appear to have occurred.
On Sunday, one candidate filed an affidavit in court from a fired poll worker who claimed to have witnessed elections employees filling out ballots days before the 2016 election. It was unclear whether what the worker witnessed was wrongdoing, or a routine process in which staffers fill out fresh blank ballots to replace those that come in too bent, torn or otherwise defective to be read by machine. The affidavit was intended to prove that similar problems could be at work in the current election.
In Broward County, 22 rejected ballots were mixed in with about 180 valid ones and were counted. In Palm Beach County, damaged ballots that were duplicated by hand, as required under state law, were handled without independent observers having a good vantage point to witness the process. Staff members had made rulings themselves on questionable ballots that were supposed to be judged by a three-person panel.
In Miami-Dade County, 266 mailed ballots passing through a sorting facility where bombs targeting Democratic politicians had been found were apparently delayed — they arrived on Saturday, after the deadline, and were not counted.
A number of absentee ballots that arrived on time were not all counted by election night — which is legal. But a candidate who saw his lead for agriculture commissioner diminish overnight filed a motion in court asking a judge to order the county elections supervisor not to count mail-in ballots that arrived late. There was no indication that the supervisor had been doing so.
Although experts say that no credible allegations of fraud have surfaced, the number of problems identified in Broward County and the county’s history of botched elections have prompted a number of prominent Republicans to call for the ouster of the elections supervisor, Ms. Snipes, who is a Democrat elected to the post.
“I was calling on the governor to fire her for months,” said Tim Canova, who ran against Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County Democrat.
The outcome of his primary race against Ms. Wasserman Schultz in 2016 wound up in court, where it was revealed that Ms. Snipes could not perform a recount because the ballots had been destroyed.
Mr. Canova ran again this year as an independent, and received just 5 percent of the vote in the district, a tally he does not believe. “I don’t put anything past her,” he said.
Chelsey Marie Smith, the poll worker who signed an affidavit in 2016 saying she saw elections officials filling out blank ballots, said Broward County voters should be worried.
Ms. Smith said in a telephone interview that she knew there could be fraud because “I saw it with my own two eyes.”
Andrew Gillum, the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee who has been running narrowly behind Representative Ron DeSantis, a Republican, in the race for governor, has not leveled any fraud accusations.
He traveled to Fort Lauderdale, in Broward County, on Sunday afternoon to deliver a rousing speech at an African-American church, in which he cast the recount in the race as a way to push back against attempts to silence minority voters. “For too long, too many of us have been ignored,” he said. “For too long, we’ve been told to sit in the corner and be quiet. You deserve a voice in the process. As do you, and you, and you. And me.”
The crowd broke into chants of “Count every vote!”
Mr. Gillum’s lawyer, Barry Richard, who also represented George W. Bush during the notorious presidential vote recount in Florida in 2000, said the accusations of fraud leveled by some Republican leaders in the state ring hollow.
“I have heard ‘fraud’ in every election I have been involved in, and it always proves to be baseless,” Mr. Richard said. “I don’t think Florida has come up with a perfect system yet.”
He said the Gillum campaign believes there were voting errors that would be corrected in a manual recount, when elections workers examine ballots on which the counting machines detected no vote for the race, or too many. A manual recount is required when a machine recount comes back with a margin of 0.25 percentage points or less between the candidates — the races for senator and agriculture commissioner are currently in that range.
Republicans say that it is not mathematically possible for the Democrats to overcome the deficits they face in all three races under recount.
Chris Hartline, a spokesman for Mr. Scott’s campaign, said the numerous problems in the counting are “certainly incompetence,” and that a judge in Broward County found this week that some of them also broke the law.
In insisting on counting every vote, he said, the Democrats’ legal strategy “is to include a bunch of votes that have not been cast legally.”
Mr. Gaetz said that in Broward County, it appeared that officials were trying to avoid releasing information on the number of ballots received and votes counted, which could be used to “triangulate fraud.” The governor had to sue to get it.
“If someone is standing in the way of the evidence, I would draw an inference that they don’t want us to know what the hell happened,” he said, as supporters chanted, in an apparent reference to Ms. Snipes, “Lock her up!” Most of the information was later released to the governor’s Senate campaign.
Eugene K. Pettis, an attorney for Ms. Snipes, said candidates had misconstrued figures reported on various websites to come up with the false notion that the number of ballots received and counted in Broward County had increased “in the night” after initial vote totals were released Tuesday night.
He said politics, not logic, had taken over the discussion. “We are in a time where you can’t just discuss the issue and let process follow — you have to destroy,” he said. “Their candidate is ahead by one vote? ‘Stop it now!’”
It is common for results initially released on Election Day to change over the following days as counting is completed and checked. That is why elections officials have several days to submit provisional numbers, and then more time to submit final vote tallies, Mr. Pettis said. Ms. Snipes, he said, stands behind her work.
“People are not happy that the vote was so close that it needs a recount.” he said.
The Broward elections office has come under intense scrutiny in the days since the election for failing to continuously report its vote tallies. Florida law requires results on election night to be updated every 45 minutes until the counting is complete, with the exception of provisional and overseas ballots. To meet that requirement, counties like Miami-Dade staff their offices around the clock after an election. Ms. Snipes, however, closed her office at around 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday to give her staff a break, and returned to counting later in the day.
The questions sometimes turn into conspiracy theories: Late last week, Twitter ignited over a video of an elections worker using his personal car to drive provisional ballots to the elections headquarters. People online cried foul play; in reality, elections workers are expected to use their cars for that very purpose.
Dotie Joseph, another lawyer representing Ms. Snipes, said Broward County has become a target.
“It’s not lost upon us that Broward County is a heavily Democratic county, hence there tends to be a political bull’s-eye on anything that happens here,” she said.