Maria Matthews, the Florida Division of Election director, said there were 3,688 rejected absentee and 93 rejected provisional ballots in 45 of Florida's 67 counties. Her data didn't include some of the most populous counties, namely Miami-Dade and Duval (Jacksonville). Palm Beach County, where there are 31,000 ballots with no votes cast in the Senate race -- possibly due to a confusing ballot design -- reported 931 rejected ballots.
"It is 3,000? Is it 50,000? The people of Florida ought to know," Walker asked from the bench, frustrated that the state officials did not have more complete figures. While lawyers for Florida's Attorney General and its Secretary of State told Walker they would file updated numbers, his Thursday ruling did not include that accounting -- which would be a revealing lens into the likelihood of Democrats prevailing.
"It would be nice if people actually know what we were talking about," the judge said in his closing remarks to the Republican lawyers after a five-hour hearing. "We hear all kinds of misinformation that undermines faith in our democracy."
What Next in Florida?
Walker's ruling -- which Republicans said they would appeal --suggested that he would only intervene when there are specific vote-counting practices that prevent all eligible voters from casting ballots that count.
"Here, the injury [to voters] is the deprivation of the right to vote based on a standardless determination made by laypeople that the signature on a voter's vote by mail or provisional ballot does not match the signature on file with the supervisor of elections," he wrote. "There are dozens of reasons a signature mismatch may occur, even when the individual signing is in fact the voter. Disenfranchisement of approximately 5,000 voters based on signature mismatch is a substantial burden."
What Walker would not do was upend the state's vote-counting timetable, even though Nelson's lawyers argued that the process should be delayed for at least several weeks. (In response, the Republicans said that could leave the state without a new governor in January 2019.) Walker looked past the hyperbole from both sides to see where small adjustments could be made.
"I don't understand how a handful of people in 67 counties can't show up with proof in the next few days, can't show up with proof and cast a ballot," Walker replied to the GOP lawyers' concerns and objections to making any change in the current process. "You are counting military ballots anyway."
Walker is referring to civilian and military ballots from overseas, which federal law allows to be counted up to 10 days after Election Day -- as long as they are postmarked by November 6. Just like rejected absentee and provisional ballots, they are segregated and handled separately, which is not a big administrative burden.
But most telling, Walker repeatedly raised the shadow of the 2000 Florida presidential recount, where the U.S. Supreme Court changed the rules in the middle of the process -- to stop the count -- and declare George W. Bush the winner in its infamous Bush v. Gore ruling.
He repeatedly asked Democrats if they wanted a federal court to tear apart and rewrite Florida's vote counting laws in the middle of close elections -- a clear reference to other lawsuits on his desk filed by Nelson's campaign and other interest groups.
"Isn't it a bad idea to have a federal judge rewrite the entire election code as the votes are being counted?" he asked. "This just seems like a really bad way to do this... Years ago, we were choosing the leader of the free world. Now we are choosing a senator and a governor? What do you say to that, Mr. [Uzoma] Nkwonta (the lead lawyer arguing for Democrats)?"
Walker's subsequent ruling showed his Court was sensitive to ensuring that as many uncounted ballots as possible be vetted and counted -- while putting some of that burden on voters to return to county election boards to "cure" whatever identity verification issues prompted their ballots to be rejected.
While adding potentially several thousand more votes to Florida's totals on Saturday may not be enough to re-elect an incumbent U.S. senator or a new Democratic governor, Walker's ruling suggested he would order Florida election officials to make small adjustments to their counting timetable.
"You all have these competing interests, but when is the error [in not counting votes] big enough that it is a structural problem?" he asked in Wednesday's hearing. "Last time I checked, 500 votes selected the leader of the free world... sent troops into Afghanistan."
Outside the courtroom, Walker's ruling will set in motion a scramble by the Democrats to identify and urge their absentee and provisional voters to see if their ballots were rejected, and, if so, go to county offices with needed IDs. That chase is exactly what the Georgia Democratic Party and Abrams campaign has been doing for days.