Let's start with what usually happens. Virtually all Florida counties use either punch cards or paper ballots read by an optical scanner, and under Florida law these ballots are sealed and held by the elections supervisor of each county for 10 days after the election. Then the ballots are moved to permanent secure storage for the next 22 months. After that, they can be shredded, once pro forma approval is granted by the secretary of state's office. It's not going to be so pro forma this time. News organizations, advocacy groups, and individuals have deluged Florida officials for permission to go over the state's ballots and come up with their own count. The right-wing organization Judicial Watch even got a look at several hundred Palm Beach ballots before the ballots were trucked up under judge's orders to Tallahassee.
Florida's extremely broad open-records laws allow anyone to petition to examine the ballots. Once a request is made, all the candidates on the ballot are supposed to be notified of the inspection, and they, or their representatives can be present during the inspection. However, only the supervisor of elections or employees of that office are allowed to touch the ballots, and each county can charge for the employees' time. Palm Beach plans to bill about $1,150 an hour for the privilege of conducting a private recount. Several election officials say they can't grant private citizens permission to examine the ballots until the election is resolved.
Has anyone ever conducted a private recount? Interviews with a few Florida county election officials failed to turn up an instance. One candidate for a judgeship who couldn't believe he lost asked to examine the ballots in Orange County. But when he was taken into the vault and shown the thousands of ballots, he decided losing wasn't so bad, after all.
Explainer thanks Robert Riker of the Sarasota County supervisor of elections office, Bill Cowles and Margaret Dunn of the Orange County supervisor of elections office, and Joan Brock of the Pinellas County supervisor of elections office.