Democratic party leaders have demanded that Donald Trump “stop bullying, harassing and lying” about election recounts in Florida before American democracy is put at risk.
Chuck Schumer, the senior Democrat in the Senate, called on the Republican governor, Rick Scott, to recuse himself from overseeing his US Senate race against the incumbent Democrat, Bill Nelson.
The Senate minority leader’s stand came as Trump, Scott and Republicans pursue a scorched-earth strategy in Florida, deploying battalions of lawyers and making baseless claims of fraud.
The troubled recounts in Senate and governor’s races in Florida are now barreling towards a Thursday deadline amid an increasingly acrimonious fight that has echoes of the infamous 2000 presidential recount. The White House – in the form of Trump’s Twitter feed and public comments – has also plunged into the fray.
For Trump, Florida is personal. His luxury Mar-a-Lago estate, dubbed the “winter White House”, is in Palm Beach and he has many business associates in the state. He raised the stakes again on Tuesday by implying, without evidence, that officials in two pivotal counties were trying to rig the election. “When will Bill Nelson concede in Florida?” he tweeted. “The characters running Broward and Palm Beach voting will not be able to ‘find’ enough votes, too much spotlight on them now!”
Schumer responded forcefully, suggesting that Trump and Scott were “dead set” against counting every vote because they were worried that Nelson would prevail.
He said: “It’s just plain wrong. It’s unAmerican. Attempts to bully, threaten and cajole officials into not counting every vote is a large and dangerous step away from the democracy we all cherish. Trump and Scott must stop now.”
On Wednesday, a lawyer for Scott said he would step down from the state panel responsible for certifying the results in the state’s highly contested elections.
Daniel Nordby told a federal judge that Scott would recuse himself from the state’s canvassing commission, a three-member panel that officially signs off on election results in state and federal races.
The League of Women Voters of Florida and another group have filed a lawsuit seeking to remove Scott from any official control over the election.
Schumer had called for Scott to recuse himself from the recount, noting that the Republican Brian Kemp had quit his post as secretary of state in Georgia as his apparent victory in the governor’s race was challenged.
Recalling Florida’s pivotal role in the disputed 2000 election between George W Bush and Al Gore, Schumer added: “We will not have a rerun of 2000. That cannot happen again.”
Standing at Schumer’s side on Tuesday, Nelson said Scott, who has previously railed against “unethical liberals” trying to “steal” the election, should recuse himself.
Nelson said: “He’s been using his power as governor to try to undermine the voting process.”
After defeat in the Senate in Arizona on Monday night, Republicans are scrambling to shore up Florida, a Senate seat they had thought was assured. More than 100 staff members from the Republican National Committee have reportedly flown to Florida along with thousands of volunteers.
Trump and Scott have been backed by far-right media and other conservative figures in sowing mistrust about the electoral process. Donald Trump Jr, the president’s son, used Twitter to share a headline that read: “Nearly 200,000 Florida Voters May Not Be Citizens.” He did not mention the article, regarding voter rolls, was published more than six years ago. The source, NBCMiami.com, subsequently attached an update that made clear the initial list of 180,000 names was whittled to 2,625 and then 85.
The state elections department and the Florida department of law enforcement, which are run by Republican appointees, have said they had seen no evidence of voter fraud. A Broward county judge challenged anyone who had evidence of fraud to file a report.
Unlike Scott, the former congressman Ron DeSantis, whose election for the governor’s office against the Democrat Andrew Gillum is also undergoing a recount, has kept a lower profile, despite his own vocal allegiance to Trump.
But the ghosts of 2000 have risen in Florida. Palm Beach county had admitted that it will not finish its recount by the Thursday deadline because its 11-year-old tallying machines are not fast enough and are overheating, while in Broward county, additional sheriff’s deputies were sent to guard ballots and voting machines.
Nate Silver, founder and editor in chief of the FiveThirtyEight website, tweeted that Trump’s outbursts “trying to delegitimize election results is awfully dangerous. Maybe the most openly authoritarian move he’s made so far.”
A former elected official in Florida, who did not wish to be named, said on Tuesday: “It’s disgusting. It’s so unAmerican. [Trump] just uses it to gin up his base; if Bill Nelson wins, this is about delegitimising the race. But you have to live and die by the rule and law, and not change the game in the middle.”
Even Human Rights Watch, a non-government organisation more commonly associated with violations in authoritarian regimes, said: “Voters in Florida must be heard. Failure to do so goes against a fair and equitable electoral system and, most importantly, undermines the rights of those Floridians who voted.”
State law requires a machine recount in races where the margin is less than 0.5%. In the Senate race, Scott’s lead over Nelson was 0.14%. In the governor’s contest, unofficial results showed DeSantis ahead of Gillum by 0.41%. Once the recount is complete, if the differences in either election is 0.25% or less, a hand recount will be ordered, meaning a further delay.