TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — If the Florida Senate race between incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and Gov. Rick Scott 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.
The race was too close to call and Scott's lead as of Wednesday evening was about 30,000 votes out of more than 8.1 million cast — a margin of less than one half of 1 percent. 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.
Chris Hartline, a spokesman for Scott's campaign, criticized the Nelson campaign for pushing ahead for a recount instead of conceding. Scott gave a victory speech late Tuesday.
"This race is over," Hartline said. "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."
Nelson and his campaign staff say they intend to let the process proceed and will have monitors in every county. Late Wednesday, an attorney for Nelson said he intends to aggressively examine and address reports of ballot problems. The Nelson campaign believes the results of the election are still unknown since there are ballots yet to be counted, Marc Elias said in a statement.
"We're doing this not just because it's automatic, but we're doing it to win," Elias said.
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.
The two candidates are heavyweights within each party: Nelson has withstood years of GOP dominance to remain the only Democrat elected statewide, while Scott is a two-term governor urged by President Donald Trump to take Nelson on.
Nelson was viewed as one of the more vulnerable Democrats thanks to the formidable challenge from Scott, a former hospital chain CEO who has poured more than $60 million of his own fortune into his campaign.
The two candidates disagreed on issues ranging from gun control to environmental policy and health care. Nelson was a strong supporter of the federal health care overhaul pushed into law by President Barack Obama, while Scott had called for the law to be repealed and replaced.
Scott, however, was forced to air a television ad in which he promised to retain the current plan's consumer protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Florida is among the states that are part of a lawsuit challenging the overhaul. The lawsuit was handled by Attorney General Pam Bondi and Scott maintained that he was not consulted about it before it was filed. But after he was aware of it, he remained largely silent until it became an issue in the campaign.
Differences between Scott and Nelson took a back seat to mutual disparagement and personal attacks, as well as Scott's links to Trump. At first Scott distanced himself from the president, but in the final week of the race he showed up at two political rallies Trump held in Florida.