via Sun Sentinal . | POSTED ON: 05/14/2018
The Broward County Supervisor of Elections Office violated state and federal laws by destroying ballots from a 2016 Congressional race too soon — and while the ballots were the subject of a lawsuit against the office, a judge has ruled.
Based on that ruling, Florida’s Department of State will send election experts to the Broward elections office in the upcoming election “to ensure that all laws are followed,” the governor’s office said. It could also cost the elections office more than $200,000 to pay attorney’s fees for Tim Canova, the defeated candidate who sued the office.
The decision stems from Canova’s bid to unseat Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the Democratic primary, a race he lost convincingly, at about 57 percent to 43 percent, or 28,809 votes to 21,907.
Canova, who was checking for voting irregularities in the race, sought to look at the paper ballots in March 2017 and took Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes to courtthree months later when her office hadn’t fulfilled his request. Snipes approved the destruction of the ballots in September, signing a certification that said no court cases involving the ballots were pending.
Snipes called the action a “mistake” during testimony she gave in the case, saying the boxes were mislabeled and there was “nothing on my part that was intentional” about destroying the contested ballots.
“When I sign, I sign folders filled with information,” Snipes said in her testimony, later adding: “I trust my staff. They have the responsibility of giving me information that’s correct.”
Circuit Judge Raag Singhal ruled Friday that Snipes wrongly destroyed public records because:
— The elections office is required to maintain the ballots in federal elections for 22 months, while Snipes destroyed the ballots after 12 months, which is the retention period for state elections.
— The ballots were the subject of a pending lawsuit, so it would take a court order from the judge in the case to allow their destruction.
Snipes “has not presented any evidence refuting that the public records sought were destroyed while this case was pending before this court,” Singhal said.
Snipes will appeal the decision, said her attorney, Burnadette Norris-Weeks.
“We think the judge is wrong,” Norris-Weeks said.
The elections office never refused to provide access to the ballots, she said.
Instead, it rejected a request by Canova to use outside equipment to scan the ballots, Norris-Weeks said. Also, it didn’t receive a partial payment to cover the costs of the public records request until days before the suit was filed and the scanned copies of the ballots it can currently provide are “accurate and inherently reliable,” she said.
“It was a mistake [destroying the original ballots], but the ballots were preserved,” Norris-Weeks said. “They were scanned shortly after the election.”
It’s not known if the judge’s ruling would lead to any charges. A spokeswoman for Broward State Attorney Michael Satz said the office had not been aware of the ruling, but would obtain a copy of the judge’s order and look into it.
Canova said he contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation twice in recent months prior to the judge’s ruling because it appeared federal ballot retention requirements were violated, but he said he has received no response from the agency.
The ruling does allow Canova to have the attorney fees he has paid be reimbursed by the elections office. Leonard Collins, his attorney, said those costs exceed $200,000 already.
Canova has also gotten the state to take interest in his case. The governor’s office said the state election monitoring will be so “the citizens of Broward County can have the efficient, properly run election they deserve.”
“The Secretary of State’s office will continue to ensure that every Supervisor of Elections understands and follows the law,” the governor’s statement said.
Norris-Weeks said she isn’t sure what type of monitoring is envisioned and sees it as an effort by Republican state leaders to get some control over the heavily Democratic county.
Canova, who is a professor at Nova Southeastern University, would like to see Snipes lose her job.
“I think dismissal is an appropriate remedy,” Canova said.
The judge’s ruling cited a previous case that held “dismissal was an appropriate sanction for failing to preserve evidence ‘even though the destruction of evidence may have resulted from negligence rather than an attempt to obstruct justice.’”
Collins said Snipes failed in one of her most important duties.
“He was absolutely stonewalled by the supervisor of elections,” Collins said of Canova. “When they were required to provide the records to us, they destroyed them.”
Canova, who had planned a primary rematch against Wasserman Schultz this year, announced in April that he was leaving the Democratic Party. He is running in the race in November as a candidate with no party affiliation.