A group of elections transparency and fairness activists gathered in Hollywood Monday to discuss voter suppression, felony disenfranchisement and election security. But speaker after speaker asked a single question: What has gone wrong with the elections process in Broward County?
Chris Sautter, an elections attorney, first came to Broward to work for Democrat Al Gore during the infamous 2000 election in which 537 South Florida voters decided the presidential election. He said back then that Broward County was one of the only places in the region that seemed to have it together when it came to voting.
“But since I’ve been here there’ve been a whole host of problems,” he told WLRN at the meeting.
The approximately 50 attendees were mostly local progressives as well as some who had traveled here. They heard tales of voter intimidation in rural Virginia. They oohed and ahhed at a demonstration given by software developer and political consultant Bennie Smith, who discovered elections system vulnerabilities in his hometown Memphis in 2015. Yet the conversation kept coming back to why the event was being held in Broward County.
"Broward County is kind of ground zero in the fight for accountability and verifiability and transparency," said Sautter.
The most prominent case of something running afoul in recent years was during a contested 2016 primary for Florida’s 23rd Congressional District. Incumbent Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz was facing an insurgent primary challenge by Bernie Sanders-backed Tim Canova, which gained national attention. As the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Wasserman Schultz faced allegations that she tipped the scales of the Democratic presidential primary to benefit Hillary Clinton. (She denies this.)
Despite all his zeal, Canova lost the primary by a wide margin. But something felt off, he said. Shortly after the election he filed public records requests with the Broward County supervisor of elections to get access to the paper ballots, which are public records. For months he waited to gain access, but did not receive it. Then, he filed a lawsuit against Brenda Snipes, the supervisor of elections, an elected official.
Months into the lawsuit, Snipes ordered the destruction of the ballots Canova was requesting to see. He was unable to review the records and was stunned.
“I’ve lost much faith and confidence in the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office to conduct a fair election,” said Canova, who spoke Monday. “It’s undermined my confidence in the election system generally around this country.”
Legal experts maintained that Snipes broke federal and state laws. A Broward judge ruled that Snipes wrongly destroyed records pertaining to a pending lawsuit, which is illegal to do without a court order. Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner wrote a letter to Snipes expressing “concern” and asking for an explanation. The state declared it would be monitoring upcoming elections handled by her office.
The election transparency meeting in Hollywood was hosted by non-profit group Americans United for Democracy, Integrity and Transparency in Elections,or AUDIT.
"I think this office is run very well, I do," said Snipes in a phone call. She said that "many offices have legal actions taken against them" and that the results of any court cases "are what they are." Previously her attorneys told the Sun Sentinel that they "think the judge is wrong,” and that the records were destroyed because of a mistake, but she declined to rehash the episode.
But problems with the Broward County elections predate Snipes’ tenure. In 2003, her predecessor, Miriam Oliphant, was removed from by then-Gov. Jeb Bush for “grave” neglect and mismanagement of the department, culminating in a botched 2002 election. Snipes took over the office following that fall-out and has been re-elected ever since.
Early last month, a judge in the Broward County Circuit Court filed an injunction against Snipes’ office, preventing her from opening mail-in ballots before meeting with the county’s three-member Canvassing Board, which determines the validity of the ballots. The Republican Party sued her office after a controversy in 2016, “when Republican poll watchers complained that Snipes’ staff was opening the ballots in private, thereby making it impossible for citizens or groups to question whether the ballots were properly cast,” Politico reported.
The issue of how mail-in ballots are handled by the office again came up during the Aug. 28 primary election after a late delivery of thousands of ballots by the Supervisor of Elections office left several county races in limbo for days on end.
Snipes said her office is fully prepared for the upcoming elections on November 6.