With deadline looming, troubled Palm Beach County recount 'in prayer mode'

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. — Ballot-counting machines sat idle and employees were nowhere to be seen in Palm Beach County's elections warehouse, hours before a key Thursday deadline in the recount of Florida's too-close to call Senate and governors race that officials were supposedly racing to meet.

Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher had warned for days that her staff would have difficulty meeting the deadline to complete a machine recount with the county's out-of-date equipment and failing, but little activity was visible all day Wednesday in what has been a 24/7 operation in other large counties.

Bucher waved away reporters who asked for updates and explanations before climbing into her black Mercedes and driving away from the facility at around 9 p.m.

Overheated machines had caused a delay Tuesday, but Bucher said at a press conference around noon on Wednesday that the equipment was functioning again and that she and her exhausted staff expected to be hustling right up to the last minute.

"We're in prayer mode to finish on time," Bucher said. "We're doing everything in our human power possible to make this happen."

Bucher warned observers to expect a "very long lull" in counting while employees double checked the work of roughly 175,000 early vote ballots they had counted earlier, and workers were visible sorting what appeared to be those ballots for a few hours.

But beyond that, there was very little visible activity throughout the afternoon and into the night Wednesday. Only one ballot-counting machine was used, and it seemed to be in testing mode, with a technician feeding what appeared to be the same stack of ballots through it multiple times.

The canvassing board, which oversees counting procedures, had been meeting periodically throughout the day, but by evening, Bucher could be seen straightening chairs and turning off lights in their separate room.

With the absence of new information, attorneys for both parties traded rumors and theories, with some speculating that Bucher's team had already completed the recount for the Senate race, but that it would not be able do so for other races, due to time and technological limitations.

The county's older machines can count only one race at a time, so each ballot would have to be processed for Senate, then governor, then agriculture commission, then a local state legislature race, instead of counting all at once.

If counties miss the 3 p.m. deadline, the numbers from their initial count will stand. Those were completed Saturday.

It's unclear, however, if a county that misses the machine recount deadline can proceed to the next phase of the process, a manual recount, with lawyers for Republicans and Democrats making conflicting arguments and little precedent to act as guideposts.

Bucher has been hoping for state officials or a court to extend the deadline, and a case currently before a federal judge in Tallahassee could do just that.

Miami-Dade, the state's largest county, completed their recount a day and a half ahead of schedule, while officials in neighboring Broward County, which has had its own problems, are confident they will make the Thursday deadline.

Bucher said her team had expected a quiet midterm election and did not anticipate the need to run the county's machines, manufactured by a now defunct company, all day and night during a multi-race recount.

The county has set aside more than $11 million to purchase newer machines, but Bucher said she had been waiting for the state legislature to tweak a new law that she says, once it goes into effect in two years, would make the new machines obsolete.

And she said Florida's election timelines, set by the Republican-controlled state government, were overly burdensome for large counties like Palm Beach, the state's third largest, which lean Democratic. By contrast, California is still counting ballots without controversy because that state gives counties more time.

"This experience is going to help us work with the legislature so that we can change to have realistic expectations," Bucher said.