Judge sides with progressive challenger Tim Canova and journalist seeking public records.
The Florida county election supervisor overseeing one of 2016’s most bitter primary races, pitting the just-resigned Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz against progressive law professor Tim Canova, unlawfully broke federal and state laws by prematurely destroying that election’s ballots.
A ruling by Broward County Circuit Court Judge Raag Singhal found Broward County Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes violated the state’s open record laws and federal law when she destroyed the ballots a year after the August 2016 primary, where Wasserman Schultz beat Tim Canova by 6,775 votes, according to the certified results. (Federal law requires election records be saved for 22 months after the general election).
Canova, assisted by television journalist and documentary filmmaker Lulu Friesdat, wanted to verify the 2016 primary’s vote count. But Snipes repeatedly rebuffed their efforts, even telling Friesdat thst she would have to pay nearly $72,000 before the election office in Florida’s second most populous county would produce the primary’s ballots.
“It is undisputed that the original paper ballots cast during primary elections are public records,” Judge Singhal wrote. “Had the ballots not been destroyed [a year after the primary election], the Court would have been required to enforce the Public Records Act and order Defendant [Snipes] to produce the records for inspection and copying ‘while in the custody of the supervisor of elections… at any reasonable time, under reasonable conditions.’”
Singhal went further and chastised Snipes for stonewalling a candidate and the media.
“The [Florida] Constitution grants every person the fundamental right to inspect or copy public records. Whether the public chooses to inspect or copy is not the choice of the governmental agency which has custody of the records,” the ruling said. “The Court finds Defendant’s violation is two-fold: (1) violation of state and federal retention requirements and (2) violation of affirmative responsibility to preserve evidence… Here, Plaintiff [Canova] filed suit to compel the production of the records but the records were destroyed while this case was pending before this Court.”
Singhal ordered Broward County to repay Canova’s court fees. The County election office and its attorneys have not been commenting to the press. But Politico reportedthat Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has said it would send an observer for the upcoming 2018 primary in August and general election in November.
Canova, who is again challenging Wasserman Schultz in 2018—as an Independent—said Scott should remove Snipes and federal officials should open an investigation. Canova said his attorneys have told him that Broward County is likely to appeal the decision.
“So far, our legal fees are $250,000,” he said, adding the prospective appeal could end up costing the county’s taxpayers $1 million, after lawyers on both sides are paid.
What Was Broward County Hiding?
In 2016’s primary, Wasserman Schultz reportedly received 28,298 votes, compared to 21,504 votes for Canova. That primary came weeks after she resigned as DNC chairwoman because her staff had been caught plotting against Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination. Emails from her staff had been hacked by Russian agents, according to U.S. intelligence officials, and ended up on Wikileaks.
That backdrop, pitting Canova, a Berniecrat progressive, against one of Hillary Clinton’s most ardent supporters and a centrist, attracted national attention. However, Canova lost the primary by 13 points and initially did not seek a recount. After he was contacted by Friesdat, whose team had done a statistical analysis of the race, he began to question the count’s accuracy, he said this week.
The county did provide some data in response to the public records request. With that data, Friesdat was able to compare the number of ballots cast to the number of votes awarded, revealing widespread discrepancies. In some precincts, there were 20 more votes awarded than ballots cast, for a total of 1,000 improperly tallied votes in the election as a whole. In the article she originally published on the subject, Friesdat quotes multiple election experts who said the discrepancies were alarming, showing “massive incompetence” or that the county was “grossly negligent.”
Canova’s campaign had also done internal polling that made him believe the actual primary results were much closer than the officially certified vote total, prompting the ensuing open records request, subsequent court filings in response to the county’s stonewallling, and the Florida Circuit Court ruling in his favor—because Broward County had destroyed the 2016 ballots.
“In this matter, it is undisputed that the original paper ballots were destroyed,” Judge Singhal wrote. “As such, the only remedy available to the Plaintiff is for this Court to grant summary judgment and award attorney’s fees.”
While Canova and election transparency activists hailed the ruling, Canova said there was tremendous pressure from election officials and Democratic Party to drop the matter and not verify the vote. Until Singhal’s ruling, he was treated as an unwelcome gadfly citing federal law that said election records had to be saved for 22 months and Florida law saying they had to be made available for inspection and copying.
“I think what prevents people [from verifying the vote] is this culture of shaming,” he said. “Candidates are told, ‘Don’t be sore losers. You’ll never have another chance to run.’”