WASHINGTON – As the controversy over mechanical failures at new voting booths and faulty ballot counts continued Thursday, Florida gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride pulled to a 8,196-vote lead over Janet Reno in the Democratic primary.
He also came one step closer to declaring victory after elections officials said that there was no cause for an automatic recount. An auto recount is triggered if the margin of difference is less than a half percentage point. McBride had a .6 percent lead over Reno at the end of counting on Thursday.
Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno could still decide to go to court and overturn the result, claiming that problems with new touch-screen voting machines made the election invalid.
More than a dozen counties had reported election mishaps since the Tuesday primary, leaving election officials scratching their heads at how a state that has infused $32 million into its voting systems -- the result of a rancorous 2000 presidential election that put Florida under rigorous scrutiny -- could experience much of the same problems two years later.
According to unofficial state returns, McBride had 601,008 votes, or 44.5 percent, compared with Reno's 592, 812 votes, or 43.9 percent. State Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami had 156,358 votes, or 11.6 percent.
A final margin within 0.5 percent of the total votes cast, or about 6,751 votes, would automatically trigger a recount. According to the unofficial results, more than 1.3 million votes were cast.
Reno, who had been leading attorney McBride in the polls by a clear 25 points before slipping behind recently, was mulling her options -- perhaps a lawsuit to overturn the results or a recount request -- and claiming that thousands of voters were turned away from the polls on Tuesday.
"We want to see how everything plays out" before declaring a victory for McBride, said Alan Stonecipher. "We're just focusing on what the immediate situation is."
The winner of the race will face Republican Gov. Jeb Bush on Election Day.
Reno's campaign complained about polls opening late or ignoring Bush's order to stay open an extra two hours, election workers struggling with new touchscreen voting machines, and voter confusion about polling places because of new precinct boundaries.
On Thursday, her camp questioned Miami-Dade's count in 81 precincts, suggesting that some precincts were counted incorrectly or incompletely.
"Until those questions are satisfied we're going to stay the course," campaign manager Mo Elleithee said. He said the campaign has received hundreds of affidavits from voters alleging problems.
"We're not alleging anything other than there are just some inconsistencies in how those reports are being reported," he said. "Right now we're in a position where we're waiting to get those questions answered."
Touch-screen voting machines had been introduced as part of an effort to avoid a repeat of the debacle in 2000, when George W. Bush's 537-vote victory was delayed by more than seven weeks as Al Gore demanded recounts and Democrats complained of uncounted and faulty punchcard ballots, undercounts and inaccessible polls in poor areas of the state.
In Florida, individual county election supervisors are responsible for election systems. Thursday, Gov. Bush and many voters blamed the problems on election chiefs in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which bought touchscreen machines to replace punchcard equipment.
"It's a black eye for Miami-Dade County and Broward County," Bush said. "More resources, more training, more equipment, more state dollars, two years to do this, and it appears there were flaws in the implementation. Sixty-five counties got it right. Hillsborough County got it right, Pinellas County got it right, Duval County got it right. Miami and Broward need to work on this to get it right in November."
"We wouldn't be in this mess today if Jeb Bush had learned the lessons from 2000 about how to run an election," Elleithee countered. "There were problems all over the state. The problems were not just limited to Miami-Dade and Broward County."
Robin Rorapaugh, campaign manager for McBride, a Tampa lawyer who ran Florida's largest law firm before stepping down to run for governor, said if Reno challenges the election, it would be a distraction but it wouldn't keep McBride from raising money.
"It would distract from the Democratic message that Bush needs to be retired and I think it would be horribly divisive," Rorapaugh said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.