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Another Florida cliffhanger? Here's how a recount could play out

Poll workers with the Leon County Supervisor of Elections office gather at the Lafayette Park precinct on November 8, 2016 in Tallahassee, Florida.
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Poll workers with the Leon County Supervisor of Elections office gather at the Lafayette Park precinct on November 8, 2016 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Once again, Florida has grabbed the nation's attention as the state with a knack for presidential election cliffhangers.

After months in the spotlight as a key battleground state in the race for the White House between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the vote count in the Sunshine State came down to the wire with little daylight between them. NBC News was calling Trump the apparent winner of the state with 29 electoral votes.

Such a slim margin touched off the prospect of a race so tight that it forces an automatic recount. If so, here's what would happen next.

The last time that happened, in 2000, the race was ultimately decided by just 537 votes out of more than 5 million cast. The recount sparked weeks of close inspection of paper ballots, battles over hanging chads and a legal fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Does this mean we have to go through that whole hanging chad thing again?

Well, no. Florida gave up those punch cards. But the state still relies on paper ballots, which means Florida could provide the nation with another cliffhanger worthy of 2000.

Under Florida law, if the final tally comes in with less a half a percentage point margin, an automatic recount kicks in. That margin is measured by the total votes cast for a particular office, not just the difference between the top two candidates.

But the first recount could happen relatively quickly, because all that's required is a retabulation of the paper ballots by machine.

So this won't take days like the last time, right?

Not necessarily. If the automated recount comes up with a tally that's within a quarter percentage point margin, then Florida law requires a hand recount. That could take a lot longer.

Wait. They have to count every piece of paper by hand?

Not exactly. According to Citizens for Election Integrity, a watchdog group, a ballot-by-ballot inspection is required only for what are known as "overvotes" or "undervotes," which typically make up only a small fraction of the millions of paper ballots cast.

An "overvote" happens when someone fills in more than one choice for a give race. An "undervote" happens with a voter doesn't fill out a choice for a specific race even though they've cast votes elsewhere on the ticket.

That should be pretty easy to count, shouldn't it?

It should. But if the racer is close, and the election outcome hangs in the balance, expect election officials from both parties to examine those ballots very carefully. Just the way standardized test results rely on filling out those circles carefully, a stray mark on a paper ballot can be subject to interpretation.

Florida law says that "a vote for a candidate or ballot measure shall be counted if there is a clear indication on the ballot that the voter has made a definite choice."

But it leaves it up to the Florida Department of State to "adopt specific rules for each certified voting system" spelling out what constitutes a "clear indication on the ballot that the voter has made a definite choice."

So if it's that close, and the election is on the line, expect to see a lot of lawyers headed for Florida in short order.

UDPATED: This story was updated to include NBC calling Donald Trump the apparent winner in Florida.