MIAMI — Counting unlawful votes. Destroying ballots. Sunshine Law violations. Busted deadlines.
So many controversies have bedeviled Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes — culminating in her office’s troubles in the aftermath of Florida’s chaotic 2018 elections — that her days in office are now numbered, insiders and lawmakers say.
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She’s losing support from fellow Democrats and faces the increasing likelihood of an embarrassing suspension from office at the hands of either Gov. Rick Scott or his likely successor, Ron DeSantis.
Suspending Snipes from office would put a final exclamation point on one of the most contested midterms in recent Florida history, which has resulted in three statewide recounts — for U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner — as well as recounts in three local legislative races. Removal proceedings in the GOP-led Florida Senate could also cause a possible rift among Florida state Senate Democrats if the black caucus rallies around Snipes in the same way it did around her predecessor, who was also African-American, more than a decade ago.
“This is not just the most troubled elections office in the state, it’s the most troubled elections office in the nation,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, who contends that Snipes needs to be removed from office once the recounts that began Sunday in the races for governor and U.S. Senate are over.
“She has shown she’s incapable of conducting a large and important election in a way that inspires public confidence and trust,” Rubio said. “She’s been found to have destroyed ballots, in violation of the law. Opened absentee ballots early, in violation of the law. Misprinted ballots that have gone out.”
Snipes’ attorney, Burnadette Norris-Weeks, said Snipes is being unfairly attacked, along with Palm Beach County’s supervisor, Susan Bucher.
“Political gamesmanship at its best,” Norris-Weeks said via email. “The Broward County and Palm Beach County Supervisors of Elections (and the canvassing boards for both counties) have done nothing more than count all votes as required by law. Ridiculous!”
If Snipes is suspended by the governor, incoming Florida state Senate President Bill Galvano said it’s time to have his chamber investigate and prepare to strike the final blow by removing her from office — just as the chamber did to her predecessor, Miriam Oliphant, for mismanaging the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
“What she’s demonstrated over the years is a series of mistakes that rise above the level of negligence and into incompetence,” Galvano said. “We can’t continue to keep ignoring this and every option should be on the table.”
Under Florida’s constitution, “incompetence” is a specific cause that a governor can invoke in suspending a constitutional officer such as Snipes.
Democrats say Snipes has privately confided that she plans to quit, but it’s unclear when. “I hope it’s soon,” said one state Senate Democrat who declined to be named. “Otherwise, she’s a goner.” Heading into the election, Democratic campaigns fretted about what her mismanagement would do in the second-largest Democratic county in the state.
Neither Scott’s nor DeSantis’ teams will comment on the record about their plans for what many see as Snipes’ looming suspension, because both men are involved in races that are the subject of recounts and lawsuits. They don’t want their comments used against them in court, according to those close to both Republicans.
“I need to be careful with what I say about her,” Scott confided to a source who confidentially relayed the conversation to POLITICO, adding that the governor “is solely focused on winning. He’s senator-elect and he has blinders on to make sure it stays that way.”
Scott’s ire with Snipes is clear. He already linked the controversies of slow counting and what Republicans call “found” ballots in Broward to a liberal effort to “steal” this election; he asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to Investigate.
Though FDLE has found no evidence of a crime, Scott’s Senate campaign on Sunday filed an extraordinary civil court motion that asked the state police agency or Broward County’s sheriff to “impound and secure all voting machines, tallying devices, and ballots” as if the elections office were a crime scene. He filed a similar lawsuit against Bucher, who has had fewer problems than Snipes over the years, but who said Saturday that it would be “impossible” to finish the recount on time.
The lawsuit against Snipes reads like an indictment, detailing numerous instances of Snipes ignoring the law and busting statutory deadlines.
“In 2016, the Supervisor of Election’s office: (i) mailed an unknown number of absentee ballots that omitted a proposed state constitutional amendment; (ii) posted early voting numbers online thirty minutes before the polls closed in primary elections; and (iii) opened ballots in private which prevented citizens and other groups of ensuring ballots were properly cast and counted,” the suit says.
“Likewise,” the suit continues, “in 2017, the Supervisor of Elections: (i) admitted that her office has allowed ineligible voters — including felons and non-citizens — to cast votes; and (ii) wrongfully authorized the destruction of ballots cast in the 2016 Democratic primary election for the 23rd Congressional District of Florida.”
However, the parade of horribles leads to one question that Scott’s spokesmen won’t or can’t answer: Why didn’t he suspend Snipes before if, as his suit says, she “has a long and troubling history of violating Florida election law, especially in close elections?”
Scott’s lawsuit also references another lawsuit his campaign successfully brought against Snipes last week after she failed to provide public information concerning the votes she had left to tally after Election Day — information that should readily be at her fingertips and that, under Florida’s Sunshine Laws, she should have disclosed.
Snipes was unwilling or unable to provide the data, and her office didn’t follow state law requiring regular vote tally updates every 45 minutes, Scott’s new lawsuit alleges. Then, in the dead of night, the office suddenly uploaded tens of thousands of new ballots in the Democratic-heavy county, causing Scott’s margins statewide to fall so far that it triggered a recount, with his margin in the race against Sen. Bill Nelson falling below a half percent. The margin in the race is now 0.15 percent, below the quarter-point threshold for a manual recount.
To cap it all off, the recount was supposed to start at 7 a.m. Sunday. But a number of technical glitches delayed the official start of the recount of the more than 700,000 ballots until just before noon. At the last minute, Snipes also admitted to mistakenly including 22 absentee ballots that, under state law, are considered “illegal” because the voter signature of the envelope they were contained in did not meet the voter signature on file.
Broward County also failed to finish tallying all of its available votes by noon Saturday, the deadline for the first wave of unofficial results to be submitted to the state. It also failed to upload all the in-person early votes and available absentee ballot votes by 7 p.m. on the day before the election.
In a response to Scott’s lawsuit, the Broward County canvassing board blamed the delay on Scott’s attorneys because they objected so much to the canvassing process before the deadline. The reply also says that, if Scott wants to contest the election, he can do so at a later date and that Scott “has invented a false deadline for completing canvass of ballots where none in fact exists. The first unofficial results are just that — i.e., unofficial.”
The ultimate irony is that the Broward County ballot design approved by Snipes might have cost Nelson — not Scott — tens of thousands of votes. The race was tucked in the lower left-hand corner of the ballot, just under the instructions, and many voters appear to have missed it. Indeed, for the first time ever, the top-of-the-ticket Senate race received fewer votes than all of the other down-ballot statewide matches, including the contest for agriculture commissioner, which is also headed to a recount.
If the Senate race in Broward had received as many total votes as the gubernatorial race and if the margins for Scott and Nelson remained constant, then Scott’s margin statewide would have shrunk from 12,562 to 2,608 statewide — a far-easier margin for the Democrat to flip. Nelson’s margin for the undervoted Senate race might have even been larger, consultants estimate, because those who missed the Senate race on the ballot were more likely infrequent Democratic-leaning voters who were driven to the polls by a large liberal get-out-the-vote effort.
“Scott shouldn’t kick her out of office. He should send her flowers,” an insider connected to DeSantis said sarcastically. “Maybe it’s better for us if Snipes just stays in office and continues to screw everything up for Democrats. But really, this is a problem for everyone and Scott should have removed her before this happened. This is his problem. He should have fixed it. Ron will if he has to.”
Many Democrats refrained from speaking critically of Snipes. But some clearly have had enough.
“If what is being reported is true, the Senate is going to have to take some drastic action,” said state Sen. Kevin Rader, a Democrat whose district includes part of Broward County. Rader acknowledged that Snipes is a problem for Democrats statewide because Broward is the second-largest county and is a liberal bastion.
“We’re talking about Democratic votes here; this is a huge Democratic count,” he said. “So from a partisan standpoint, it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Another Broward Democrat, state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, said he doesn’t expect Snipes to last.
“I suspect she won’t be here for long,” said Moskowitz, “whether she is suspended from office, she leaves office early or she’s voted out.”