Cherfilus-McCormick ‘apparent winner’ of primary, defeating Holness by 5 votes

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Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick was declared the winner of the South Florida 20th Congressional District Democratic primary on Friday — 10 days after Election Day — finishing five votes ahead of Dale Holness.

“It still seems like it’s unreal. But I want to thank the voters in Broward and Palm Beach counties,” Cherfilus-McCormick said Friday evening.

Officially, she still faces a general election. Also in the ballot on Jan. 11: Republican Jason Mariner, Libertarian Mike ter Maat and two no party affiliation/independent candidates, Jim Flynn and Leonard Serratore.

But the general election is essentially a formality in the 20th District, which is so overwhelmingly Democratic that winning the primary is tantamount to winning the general election.

Cherfilus-McCormick said she’ll be the first Haitian American Democrat to serve in Congress. “It’s a huge responsibility especially at this time when we feel we have been voiceless,” she said.

More than 49,000 votes were cast in the Democratic primary. Results on Friday, which still must be certified by the state Elections Canvassing Commission, showed 11,662 votes for Cherfilus-McCormick to 11,657 for Holness.

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick embraces members of her legal team after being declared the winner of the South Florida 20th Congressional District by the Broward elections Canvassing Board on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021 in Lauderhill.

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick embraces members of her legal team after being declared the winner of the South Florida 20th Congressional District by the Broward elections Canvassing Board on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021 in Lauderhill. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

“At this point in time, it’s fair to say Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick is the apparent nominee of the Democratic Party,” Broward Supervisor of Elections Joe Scott said after 6 p.m. Friday.

Nine other candidates sought the party nomination to fill the vacancy created by the April 6 death of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, who served for 28 years.

Cherfilus-McCormick dominated in Palm Beach County, which accounts for a about a quarter of the district’s voters. Holness did better in the Broward part of the districts.

Asked if she’d have preferred to win by a larger number of votes, she said the answer was obvious. “Of course.” She said she was never discouraged by naysayers who said she couldn’t prevail in the primary that included five elected officials, including Holness, a Broward County commissioner. “They always say you can’t until you do it.”

It’s the first time Cherfilus-McCormick, CEO of a home health care company, has won an election. She unsuccessfully challenged Hastings in the 2018 and 2020 Democratic primaries.

After hours of officials examining overseas ballots, no additional votes for either of the top two vote-getters emerged on Friday.

Holness said Friday evening he needed to consult with his attorneys to decide if he’ll challenge the primary results. He said 12 military votes that weren’t counted are tantamount to 12 voters being disenfranchised.

Cherfilus-McCormick said Holness “fought very, very hard. I respect that vigor.”

The Broward elections Canvassing Board convened Friday afternoon to consider 19 ballots in the ultra-close contest.

Among the ballots that were considered by the Broward Canvassing Board: 16 overseas ballots.

Most were rejected as ineligible under state and federal law. Others didn’t produce any votes for Holness or Cherfilus-McCormick.

Candidate Dale Holness reaches out for a handshake following a hearing at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. The Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick team was seeking to prevent the Broward County Canvassing Board from continuing to count vote-by-mail ballots in the South Florida congressional race between Holness and Cherfilus-McCormick. The judge denied the request.

Candidate Dale Holness reaches out for a handshake following a hearing at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. The Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick team was seeking to prevent the Broward County Canvassing Board from continuing to count vote-by-mail ballots in the South Florida congressional race between Holness and Cherfilus-McCormick. The judge denied the request. (Amy Beth Bennett / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Earlier Friday a Broward circuit court judge rejected a move by Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick to block counting of three vote-by-mail ballots.

In the end, the three votes didn’t affect the outcome. One was for a Republican. Two were for Democrats Barbara Sharief and Perry Thurston, who finished far behind Cherfilus-McCormick and Holness on election night.

Final results in the Broward County part of the district: 7,798 for Cherfilus-McCormick and 10,643 for Holness.

Palm Beach County’s Canvassing Board finished its work shortly after 5 p.m. It didn’t receive any additional overseas ballots to count. Final results in the Palm Beach County part of the district: 3,864 for Cherfilus-McCormick and 1,014 for Holness.

State and federal laws requires counting mail votes from overseas voters that arrive up to 10 days after an election.

With the race ultra-close, the Broward Canvassing Board held held long discussions over a handful of ballots.

The issue: whether military ballots were actually overseas.

The Canvassing Board said the law is clear: If there’s no evidence the servicemember was overseas, they don’t get the grace period.

Three different attorneys for Holness repeatedly objected to not counting those ballots. They argued that the Canvassing Board should assume a military voter is overseas and shouldn’t be counted.

Scott and Judge Deborah Carpenter-Toye, chairwoman of the board, said they couldn’t legally do that. “This board is tied by statue,” Scott said.

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County Commissioner Michael Udine, the third member of the board, voted to count some. “We just had Veterans Day [on Thursday] and everyone smiled for the camera,” he said. “I won’t disenfranchise a member of the military.”

As Holness attorneys kept repeating their arguments, Carpenter-Toye said, “I’m very clear what you think … The statute I believe is very clear.”

The Broward Canvassing Board was packed with several dozen observers, attorneys for the candidates and reporters. Many people were standing, even after Scott staffers expanded the public viewing area and added two more rows of chairs. Many more watched via Zoom video.

Holness and his attorneys were in the front row. Cherfilus-McCormick sat immediately behind Holness in a row with her attorneys.

Staff writer Angie DiMichele contributed to this report.

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