Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes BROWARD COUNTY SUPERVISOR OF ELECTIONS / CHARLESVAZ.JALBUM.NET/SOE-2011-NEW-PICTURES/
by Daniel Rivero | WLRN | Miami- South Florida | September 18, 2018
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.
Elections transparency activists held a meeting in Hollywood this week. Many focused their attention on the Broward County Supervisor of Elections.
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.
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.’”
After the results of Tim Canova’s August 2016 primary against Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a number of election-integrity experts found the certified results problematic. Lulu Friesdat, a journalist and documentary filmmaker who has investigated election issues for over a decade, worked with a team of data analysts, and they found statistical red flags in the results.
Canova wanted to inspect the ballots, initially in about a dozen precincts, under Florida’s public records law. By inspecting the ballots, Canova, a Nova Southeastern University law professor, sought to verify the vote, which he hoped would put people’s concerns and suspicions to rest.
In November of 2016, Friesdat filed two public records requests with the Broward County Supervisor of Elections Office. The office did not comply fully with the public records requests, and falsely stated that they “do not capture Ballot Image Files.” In March of 2017, Canova and Friesdat filed a third public records request with the office. In June of 2017, after the Broward Supervisor continued to stonewall the requests, Canova filed a lawsuit to gain access to the ballots.
On September 1, 2017, while the lawsuit was pending, and prior to allowing any inspection, Brenda Snipes, the Broward Supervisor of Elections, personally signed off on the illegal destruction of all of the ballots and accompanying documentation in the race. Even after Snipes destroyed the ballots, she concealed the fact, until forced to disclose the illegal destruction during the discovery phase of our lawsuit. As the court suggested in its May 11, 2018 order granting Canova summary judgment, even after Snipes admitted to the destruction of ballots, she continued to act in bad faith by litigating for another eight months, thereby harming Broward County taxpayers by needlessly driving up the litigation costs for both sides.
Without the original paper ballots, and using only digital scanned images, elections experts that were consulted say it is impossible to verify the results of our primary against Wasserman Schultz. There are an unfortunately large number of ways that the process could produce an incorrect ballot count. Ballots could have been lost or replaced before the scanning; ballot on demand machines could have produced extra ballots; some digital images could have been either accidentally or deliberately repeated numerous times. Digital images themselves can be altered, and there is no convincing chain-of-custody evidence for these digital images. The process of creating them involved using third-party proprietary software, as well as assistance from a third-party vendor, Clear Ballot. Even the chain-of-custody documents for the original paper ballots were not filled out fully.
When Ms. Friesdat’s data team was able to review some of the information from the election, they found large and unexplained discrepancies between the number of voters who voted and the number of cast ballots. In all, there were more than 1,000 discrepancies, and out of 211 precincts only 19 had the same number of voters and ballots. These irregularities were highly concerning to election experts.
Duncan Buell, a professor of computer science at the University of South Carolina, said, “I see what I would call a high likelihood of massive incompetence. Either that or there is fraud. I don’t think you should see numbers this big in this many precincts.” Buell has examined election records extensively in South Carolina.
Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa stated that the county ought to be reconciling the number of voters with ballots and if they’re not doing it, “they’re grossly negligent.” Jones served on the Election Assistance Commission’s Technical Guidelines Development Committee for four years, but said “I’ve never seen a county that looks like this.”
The large discrepancies between the number of voters and the cast ballots, plus the inability or refusal of the Supervisor of Elections’ office to produce the original ballots, all raise questions about what the true totals for the race may have been. The experts we spoke with concurred that the certified results must be considered suspect. “They destroyed the evidence,” said Karen McKim, a member of the Wisconsin Election Integrity Action Team and a veteran of hand-counts in that state. “They can’t defend their results.”
According to U.S. intelligence agencies, there are serious risks to the integrity of our elections from hacking or other electronic manipulation. Those risks could be from either foreign or domestic sources. The ease of hacking into electronic voting machines – even those not ordinarily connected to the internet – was recently reported in a New York Times Magazinearticle by Kim Zetter entitled “The Myth of the Hacker-Proof Voting Machine” (Feb. 21, 2018).
It is incumbent on us all to protect our democracy, and to make sure that we fully verify the accuracy of our elections.