TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida's acrimonious battle for the U.S. Senate is headed to a legally required hand recount after an initial review showed Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Bill Nelson separated by just a few thousand votes.
But the highly watched contest between Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum appears to be over, with a machine recount showing that DeSantis' advantage over Gillum was big enough to avoid a hand recount in that race.
Gillum, who conceded the race on Election Night only to retract his concession later, said in a statement that "it is not over until every legally casted vote is counted."
The recount so far has been fraught with problems as one large Democratic stronghold in South Florida was unable to finish its machine recount by the Thursday deadline due to machines breaking down. A federal judge rejected a request to extend the recount deadline.
"We gave a heroic effort," said Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher. If the county had three or four more hours they would have made the deadline, she said.
Meanwhile, election officials in another urban county in the Tampa Bay area decided against turning in the results of their machine recount, which came up with 846 fewer votes than originally counted.
Counties were ordered this past weekend to do a machine recount of three statewide races because the margins were so tight. The next stage is a manual review of ballots that were not counted by machines to see if there a way to figure out voter intent.
The recount has triggered multiple lawsuits, many of them filed by Nelson and Democrats. The legal battle drew the ire of U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who slammed the state Thursday for repeatedly failing to anticipate election problems. He also said the state law on recounts appears to violate the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that decided the presidency in 2000.
"We have been the laughingstock of the world, election after election, and we chose not to fix this," Walker said in court.
Walker vented his anger at state lawmakers and Palm Beach County officials, saying they should have made sure they had enough equipment in place to handle this kind of a recount. But he said he could not extend the recount deadline because he did not know when Palm Beach County would finish its work.
"This court must be able to craft a remedy with knowledge that it will not prove futile," Walker wrote in his ruling turning down the request from Democrats. "It cannot do so on this record. This court does not and will not fashion a remedy in the dark."
The overarching problem was created by the Florida Legislature, which Walker said passed a recount law that appears to run afoul of the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, by locking in procedures that do not allow for potential problems.
A total of six election-related lawsuits are pending in Tallahassee. Earlier Thursday, Walker ordered that voters be given until 5 p.m. Saturday to show a valid identification and fix their ballots if they have not been counted due to mismatched signatures.
State officials testified that nearly 4,000 mailed-in ballots were set aside because local officials decided the signatures on the envelopes did not match the signatures on file. If those voters can prove their identity, their votes will now be counted and included in final official returns due from each county by noon Sunday.
Walker was asked by Democrats to require local officials to provide a list of people whose ballots were rejected. But the judge appointed by President Barack Obama refused the request, calling it "inappropriate."
Under state law, a hand review is required with races that have a margin of 0.25 percentage points or less. A state website put the unofficial results showing Republican Gov. Rick Scott ahead of Nelson by 0.15 percentage points. The margin between DeSantis and Gillum was 0.41 percent.
Nelson and Democrats had wanted Walker to order the counting of all mail-in ballots rejected for a mismatched signature, arguing that local election officials are not handwriting experts.
Walker said he could not go along with that suggestion.
"Let this court be clear: It is not ordering county canvassing boards to count every mismatched vote, sight unseen," Walker wrote in his 34-page ruling.
Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for Scott, called Walker's ruling "baseless" and said they were "confident" it would be overturned by the Atlanta-based appellate court. But the appeals court late Thursday turned that request down.
The developments are fueling frustrations among Democrats and Republicans alike. Democrats want state officials to do whatever it takes to make sure every eligible vote is counted. Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have argued without evidence that voter fraud threatens to steal races from the GOP.
Associated Press writer Tamara Lush contributed to this story from St. Petersburg, while Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy contributed from Fort Lauderdale.