Republican Matt Caldwell says he thought it was mathematically impossible for him to lose the Florida Agriculture Commissioner race when he declared victory a week ago. He was up 40,000 votes and believed about five Broward County precincts and a maximum 33,000 votes remained untabulated.
Now he’s 5,326 votes behind Democrat Nikki Fried and wants to know how that happened.
“I think voters deserve a straight answer,” Caldwell said. “Where did 80,000 votes come from?”
The closing gap has prompted tremendous speculation on social media, where Republicans push the hashtag #StopTheSteal relentlessly. Caldwell’s campaign has sued for records explaining the source of votes, though authorities maintain say they were simply dutifully counting votes as fast as possible.
Fried’s legal team smells sour grapes in Caldwell’s legal complaint.
“The false and specious lawsuit by our opponent smacks of desperation,” said Fried attorney Ben Kuehne.
“Florida law is clear—all Supervisors of Elections are legally obligated to count all the votes and certify the tabulation by the Saturday following the election. There has been no evidence of fraud and any votes that were legally cast should count. Florida has no place for misleading complaints raised by losing candidates.”
And Florida Republicans have faced increasing criticism for alleging voter fraud when law enforcement says no evidence of the sort exists.
For Caldwell, though, getting a full accounting of all votes will be essential even if he ends up losing the election.
“I have zero interest in winning this election on a legal loophole,” he said.
“Whoever serves as the next Agriculture Commissioner, whether it’s myself or my opponent, should look forward over the next four years without a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the office.”
Interestingly, Caldwell and Fried both seem to be abiding by the same legal strategies as their partisan cohorts in the U.S. Senate recount.
There, Republican Rick Scott, who maintains a lead of more than 12,500 votes over Bill Nelson, has argued against counting any questionable votes, whether that means votes in the mail as of Election Day or even votes left on a table in the Supervisor of Elections Office when the tabulation deadline passes.
Nelson’s attorneys, meanwhile have sued to count votes cast even by non-citizens.
Caldwell says for the sake of election integrity, he doesn’t want any votes to count cast that weren’t in elections offices by 7 p.m. of Election Day, and his lawsuit questions if other votes have made it into totals.
“Whether that’s to my detriment is irrelevant,” he says.
Meanwhile, despite holding a lead, Fried’s team has argued to count as many votes as possible.
“Our legal team has been in court, defending against the Republican onslaught of lawsuits designed to subvert Florida’s democratic process. They are taking the necessary action to prepare for the hearings in the coming days,” said Fried spokesman Max Flugrath.
As for voted cast by fax or email in Bay County, Caldwell says supervisors must stay sticklers over the law. But, “as long as someone voted legally by a legal methos, it should be counted,” he said.
Flugrath says: “Any and all votes cast legally should count. We are working hard to protect the vote—our democratic process here in Florida must be protected and its integrity upheld.”
The question there may come down to whether voters themselves did not vote by a legal method, or if the supervisor went astray allowing those votes to be cast.
But that’s just one more question for the lawyers.