National News

The Hottest Spot in Florida? The Seat of the Broward County Elections Chief

Posted November 13, 2018 9:27 p.m. EST

Brenda Snipes, the head of Broward County's elections office, left, Judge Betsy Benson, center, and Judge Deborah Carpenter-Toye look over a ballot during a canvassing board meeting at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections Office in Lauderhill, Fla., Nov. 9, 2018. Snipes, a Democrat, is at the center of a raging controversy marked by three statewide recounts, a litany of lawsuits, rising calls for her removal (the most recent from by the man who appointed her), — and a rowdy protest last week buoyed by the stinging words of President Donald Trump. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — There was an election in Broward County, 16 years ago that was roundly condemned as a mess. There were allegations of voting irregularities, and numerous problems were reported in tallying every last vote. The Republican governor at the time, Jeb Bush, removed the county elections supervisor from office for incompetence and decided on a new woman for the job.

His choice? Brenda C. Snipes, who now finds herself as embattled after last week’s election as her predecessor was back in 2002.

Snipes, a Democrat, is at the center of a raging controversy marked by three statewide recounts, a litany of lawsuits, rising calls for her removal (the most recent from the man who appointed her), and a rowdy protest last week buoyed by the stinging words of President Donald Trump.

On Tuesday, she said for the first time that she would consider calling it quits, a day after several pro-Trump groups posted her home address and phone numbers online.

Inside Snipes’ office in Lauderhill, away from all the drama, workers were beginning the process on Tuesday of actually running ballots through counting machines. They had spent the first two days of the recount sorting the ballots, picking out the pages that needed to be tallied again.

As the process unfolded, there was no denying that all eyes were on Snipes. In a tweet Monday, Bush joined the chorus of Republican officials denouncing her. Among the issues was the Senate race, in which the Republican candidate, Gov. Rick Scott, had a razor-thin lead over Sen. Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent. Snipes was accused by Scott and other Republicans of unfairly tipping the scales for her party, though no evidence of that was put forward.

“There is no question Snipes failed to comply with Florida law on multiple counts, undermining Floridians’ confidence in our electoral process. Supervisor Snipes should be removed from her office following recounts,” Bush wrote.

Snipes, 75, who said she had never before been the subject of such harsh personal attacks, acknowledged that Bush had appointed her originally, but she also noted that she was later elected to the post in 2004 and then re-elected every four years since.

“If that is Jeb Bush’s opinion, then there’s nothing I can do about that,” she said from the canvassing room of her office in the Lauderhill Mall. “That’s an opinion.”

Bush appointed her “following the removal of another black woman,” Miriam Oliphant, Snipes said. When asked if she was suggesting that her race had something to do with the criticism leveled against her, she responded: “I won’t say, ‘Oh, I am a black woman!’ I’m not saying that. But there are factors that stand out a bit more than others.”

A trusted adviser to the former governor had put Snipes’ name forward for the job. The adviser, Dorsey Miller, a Republican activist who knew Bush well, said he was impressed by her four-decade career in public education, rising from classroom teaching to become a principal and administrator. She received a doctorate in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

“I recommended Brenda because she is smart and she has integrity,” said Miller, a retired school administrator who is now registered without party affiliation. “I have no doubt about her ability to supervise an election. She didn’t have experience in this area, but I knew she could learn and had people around her that could help. What is happening to her is unfair. She is the victim of political posturing, more than anything else.”

As the supervisor of elections, her main responsibility has been to conduct fair elections and maintain accurate voter rolls. Some of the elections she has managed over the years have run smoothly. Others have prompted a string of complaints, including long lines, delayed counts and, in 2016, the release of early voting results before the polls had closed. In that case, an employee of an outside company hired for the election made the error.

In recent years, Snipes acquired new, more efficient equipment and managed to defeat challengers who knocked her stewardship of the office.

Two years ago, David Brown, a veteran political consultant who was endorsed by The Sun-Sentinel, ran unsuccessfully against Snipes. He said her brand recognition was difficult to surmount.

“I think she has done a good job with voter outreach and registration,” said Brown, who owns a promotional products and marketing company. “But there were too many other issues. 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.”

Earlier this year, a judge ruled Snipes’ office illegally destroyed ballots too soon after a 2016 congressional race, a move she described as unintentional. The ballots had all been counted, but should have been retained longer under the law, the judge ruled.

The issue arose after the incumbent Democrat in the race, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, defeated Tim Canova, a university professor. Canova went to court afterward to request access to the ballots, to check them for voting irregularities, only to find that they had been discarded.

Because of the court’s ruling in that case, the Florida Department of State decided to send two employees to monitor the conduct of the midterm elections in the county last week. They reported no wrongdoing.

Snipes’ attorney, Eugene K. Pettis, said she had done nothing in last week’s elections to be embarrassed about. Broward is counting ballots as prescribed by law, he said, in a process overseen by the county canvassing board, which includes two judges.

“Dr. Snipes is very confident, because she has fulfilled her duties under the law,” he said. “I think if you took a survey of every election supervisor, there are none of them that have not had challenges. Elections are dynamic human-involved processes on both sides of the box.”

Still, the withering criticism has taken its toll. Snipes mused on Tuesday that it may be “time to move on and let someone else” fill what has become a very hot seat.