Brenda Snipes — the Broward County, Florida, elections supervisor who oversaw the recent recounts — resigned from her position on Monday, ending her tenure by saying that she was “ready to pass the torch.”
Snipes’s 15 years as supervisor of elections in Florida’s second-most-populous county (and the county with the most registered voters) was stormy, to say the least. She oversaw multiple elections in which there were problems with ballots, most recently and notably the 2018 midterm elections, which descended into what ABC News called a “messy” recount to determine the victors in the state’s gubernatorial and Senate elections.
Within conservative media, meanwhile, Snipes became a lightning rod for criticism, with prominent publications calling her an “arrogant bungler” who should be removed posthaste while Republicans worried that a Florida recount could ultimately limit their net Senate victories to just one.
Sen.-elect Rick Scott even demanded an investigation into election proceedings in Broward County, saying on November 8, “I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the great people of Florida. Their goal is to keep mysteriously finding votes until the election turns out the way they want … left-wing activists have been coming up with more and more ballots out of nowhere.” (No investigation actually took place because Scott, the governor, didn’t put the request in writing.)
But there’s an old saying that applies to much of politics, and specifically to the case of what happened in Broward County: Never attribute malice to what can be explained by incompetence — or just plain mismanagement.
Since her appointment in 2003 by Florida’s then-governor, Jeb Bush — when she replaced another elections supervisor accused of neglect of duty and incompetence — Snipes oversaw multiple elections in which thousands of ballots were lost or even destroyed mid-litigation, resulting in a flurry of lawsuits each time. And in 2018, during a midterm election that drew more attention (and voters) than any in recent memory, Broward County — and Snipes — once again dropped the electoral ball.
A long history of elections gone wrong
As my colleague German Lopez detailed last week, serious problems in Florida’s state and federal elections, including in areas like Broward County, had plagued the state over the past two election cycles (2016 and 2018). They included violations of state law, accidentally mixing in more than a dozen rejected ballots with more than 200 valid ballots, and wrongly opening mail-in ballots in private without verification from the local canvassing board that the ballots were properly cast.
Snipes was right in the middle of the chaos, refusing to answer questions or respond to records requests. In one incident, she even illegally ordered the destruction of 688 boxes of ballots — roughly 6,000 ballots in total — that were the subject of a lawsuit filed disputing the results of the August 2016 Democratic primary in Broward County, in which Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz defeated a South Florida law professor named Tim Canova. That August 2016 primary was full of problems in Broward County — including that results were posted online 30 minutes before polls closed.
Even before ordering the destruction of the ballots, Snipes had refused public records requests from both Canova and a documentary filmmaker who was making a film about election transparency. Canova didn’t even know that the boxes of ballots had been destroyed, only finding out during a hearing two months after the ballots had been thrown out, and one month after Snipes’s attorney had told Canova’s legal representation that they could examine the ballots (which now no longer existed except as digital scans). In her testimony, Snipes only said that “nothing on my part was intentional” about destroying the boxes of ballots, adding that their destruction was a “mistake.”
In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor in December 2017, Canova said, “When something like this happens where all the ballots are destroyed, it completely undermines people’s faith in the system.” In May 2018, a circuit judge ruled that the destruction of those ballots was in fact illegal.
“We had an excellent election with record turnout. And then it turns into this ugly monster because it gets political.”
All this brings us to 2018, when even the design of Broward County’s sample ballot caused problems, resulting in “undervoting” and thousands of people simply not voting in Florida’s Senate race.
When no victor had been declared in the races for Senate and the Florida governor’s mansion more than five days after the election — with Snipes’s office reporting missing ballots while failing to meet a recount deadline that resulted in results getting invalidated — Snipes began to receive a torrent of criticism and denunciations from conservative media outlets, protests outside of Broward’s election offices, and even several Facebook users posting her home address posted online.
In an editorial titled “Fire Brenda Snipes,” the editors of National Review wrote:
Florida has a host of laws on the books that were designed to ensure that its citizens can track elections in as close to real time as possible. When those laws are ignored — and when the press is met with hostility, defiance, and indifference — it becomes more difficult to guarantee that nothing untoward is going on. During elections, “Trust us” is an extraordinary request, even from a figure of unimpeachable record. From Brenda Snipes, it is farcical.
And at the Washington Examiner, conservative writer Philip Wegmann wrote:
Brenda Snipes shouldn’t be allowed within 100 miles of a polling place, but the people of Broward keep electing her election supervisor. Either they don’t remember how she lost between 6,000 and 58,000 absentee ballots ahead of the 2004 presidential election, or they don’t care about the time she broke the law in 2016 and prematurely destroyed ballots that were subject to an ongoing lawsuit. Snipes has been a train wreck for the better part of two decades. But somehow Snipes has been re-elected four times. Now Broward is suffering for their oversight. Because they didn’t bother to look closely, their county is the laughing stock of the nation once again, just like it was during the 2000 presidential election.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Snipes responded to the criticism, saying, “That’s crazy because I have not done anything wrong. We had an excellent election with record turnout. And then it turns into this ugly monster because it gets political.”
But David Brown, who ran against Snipes in 2016 for the elections supervisor position (and lost), told the New York Times that while Snipes had done a great job getting more voters registered, “It’s a very complicated office, with lots of rules and regulations. But I also think she has failed to reach out and get the help or resources she needs when problems do come up, so they don’t get fixed.”
Being bad at your job is not a crime
As the recount was going on, President Trump and other Republicans decried supposed voter fraud in Broward County (though the state saw no evidence of this actually happening). Scott added in his call for an investigation, “The people of Florida deserve fairness and transparency, and the supervisors are failing to give it to us” (though Scott himself has been sued for ignoring public records requests). From Trump to Sen. Marco Rubio, the contentions were clear: Broward County is trying to steal this election from Republicans, for Democrats, through fraud.
But as German Lopez wrote last week on Florida’s election woes, voter fraud and pure incompetence are two separate problems:
There is a difference, though, between fraud and incompetence. One is about deliberately rigging the election, while the other can come down to mistakes, however serious. Fraud would also benefit one candidate or party over the other, but incompetence can hurt both — and in this case, it appears to have hurt both parties in different ways.
And it’s fairly clear that in a county best known in elections circles for the 2000 presidential election recount, there has been a long history of incompetence that has put the votes of more than a million people in jeopardy, including by Brenda Snipes.
Gov. Rick Scott — the same Rick Scott who threatened to launch an investigation into Broward County’s voting practices — is likely to appoint Snipes’s replacement. And that person will soon face another big test: 2020.