“In many ways, this has been Ms. Snipes’ finest election,” Ion Sancho, the former Leon County supervisor of elections, told me over the phone. Rarely were such kind words used to describe Dr. Brenda Snipes, the Broward County supervisor of elections, since her resignation. Dr. Snipes came under fire recently after being accused of committing fraud in the Broward elections. As the margin between Senator Bill Nelson and Governor Rick Scott shrank, Gov. Scott alleged in a lawsuit against Dr. Snipes that she illegally used her judgment when reviewing damaged absentee ballots and counted mail-in ballots that came in past the voting deadline. He had no evidence other than that more votes were appearing in the recounts that in the original tally. “I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the people of Florida,” Gov. Scott told the media outside his mansion.
Mr. Sancho described Gov. Scott’s behavior as hysterical but more than hysterical, misinformed. He says that many of the mail-in ballots arrived so late that Dr. Snipes would never have been able to count them on time. “’Lock her up!’ And basically, for what?” Mr. Sancho said. “For not having ballots tabulated on November 6th? That’s ludicrous! There’s no way they could have been tabulated!” His only criticism of Dr. Snipes’ handling of the situation is that she didn’t tell the press sooner.
Mr. Sancho was the Leon County supervisor of elections for almost three decades. The way he talked about elections is unlike many of colleagues. On one hand, he sounds like he’s talking about football, criticizing and admonishing supervisors by name with stats to back up his commentary. On the other hand, he’s talking out of a passion for the political process and American democracy. He sometimes even refers to his work in Leon county in the present tense even though he retired last year.
He calls Dr. Snipes resignation “honorable” because he feels it will eliminate any politically motivated accusations against her office. Furthermore, he believes the meltdown in Broward county as well as in Palm Beach has nothing to do with political schemes but rather the Florida law.
For one, the law makes it difficult for supervisors to have access to the best tabulating machines. “In Leon county, we can examine every vote cast in every race, blank or otherwise, in minutes,” he told me. “We can flip a switch and depict a recount.” Mr. Sancho says that this technology could prevent what happened in this past recount to ever happen again. However, it is illegal to use this technology in a recount. Instead, supervisors are pushed to use more antiquated machines like the ones that overheated in Palm Beach county.
Secondly, Mr. Sancho believes that Florida deadlines are illogical. Had supervisors had more time to the count the mail in ballots, accusations of fraud may have never come up. “Look, they’re not writing in California because Los Angeles county still has 500,000 ballots to count,” Mr. Sancho said. “Because their deadlines don’t allow the politicians to go crazy.” Mr. Sancho believes that the deadlines only exacerbate a partisan environment because when supervisors fail to meet them, the accusations become too easy.
Mr. Sancho often referred to partisanship as the poison which stunts our conversations about the election process, but the conversation surrounding Broward county is different. Not everyone who has investigated Dr. Snipes is a member of Gov. Scott’s camp nor do they necessarily think foul play is afoot.
Tim Canova was a Democratic candidate who showed promise in 2016 before losing in the primary to Rep. Debbi Wasserman Shultz. However, he didn’t buy the election results because Mr. Canova and his staff predicted a crushing defeat for Rep. Shultz based on the performance of his campaign. His suspicions were confirmed when he received phone calls from election experts who believed that the election results were consist with manipulation of the tabulating machines’ software. He made three public requests to inspect the ballots to check for any wrongdoing but ended up suing Dr. Snipes after she failed to give them up. Over the course of the case, Dr. Snipes would eventually admit in a video-taped disposition that she destroyed ballots and signed documents stating that they had nothing to do with any legal proceedings when in fact they did because Mr. Canova had requested to see them as part of his investigation. Dr. Snipes said that the action was just a mistake and not a deliberate effort to rig the election in favor of Rep. Shultz. “The pattern of her conduct suggests willfulness of conduct,” he said. “I have little doubt that this was not a mistake.”
According to Mr. Sancho, however, this too could have been an honest mistake. He says that Dr. Snipes made exact copies of the ballots before throwing them away and that physical ballots do take up a huge amount warehouse space. “She was negligent in that she thought that removed her statutory obligation to keep the ballots for 22 months,” he said. “She just wasn’t thinking about the law. She was probably thinking more about warehouse space.”
Mr. Sancho is not alone in suggesting that Dr. Snipes’ conduct is merely a series of honest mistakes as opposed to fraud. Bob Nichols, the former chairman of the Broward County Republican Election Fraud Committee, has entertained the possibility.
The same year that Mr. Canova investigated Dr. Snipes for her actions in the primary, Mr. Nichols investigated her for her actions in the general election after Chelsey Marie Smith, a poll worker, testified in a sworn affidavit that she saw election workers filling out stacks of blank ballots and was fired the next day without explanation.
Mr. Nichols was chosen to look into Ms. Smith’s case in part because of his expertise in the art of interrogation. Mr. Nichols interrogated Ms. Smith for hours to make sure her case was legitimate enough for review of the committee. In the end, he believed her. Dr. Snipes told investigators that Ms. Smith probably just saw workers duplicating damaged ballots or copying ballots faxed in by military personnel unto the correct size sheet. According to Mr. Nichols, Dr. Snipe’s explanation doesn’t really explain what Ms. Smith saw. If staff was duplicating faxed in ballots, those ballots would have been the wrong size but according to Ms. Smith, all the ballots were the same. Besides that, each worker at that table only had two stacks of ballots: blank ones and the ones they were filling in, according to Mrs. Smith. If that was the case, there would have been no documents on that table for them to copy from, faxed or otherwise.
Still, Mr. Nichols says that all of this doesn’t necessarily amount to fraud. “I think the facts are what they are,” he said. Though he added, “It doesn’t really matter if its corruption or incompetence, its limiting people’s ability to vote. And it’s illegal.”
Whatever the case, the question of fraud or incompetence still weighs on the minds of Floridian voters and it does matter in regards to how election officials prepare for the next recount. If they don’t know what went wrong this time around, how can they prevent it from happening again? According to Mr. Sancho, the system needs reform that can’t be fixed just by investigating the individuals behind it. “We can design a process that can work to serve everyone’s interests well,” he said. “But as long we engage in the most feckless politics I’ve ever seen as an adult – and I’ve been following politics since 1988 – we’re not going to serve the citizens of Florida well.”