Broward County

Another blunder for Broward elections: Ballots missing medical-marijuana question

The Broward County elections office, already under scrutiny for two blunders in the past few weeks, played defense once more Friday as its supervisor came under fire after mail-in ballots turned up that skipped a constitutional amendment question on medical marijuana.

One of the organizations supporting the amendment, NORML of Florida, has asked for an emergency hearing after filing a lawsuit on what it called an error that could be “catastrophic and cataclysmic.” A Broward judge has scheduled a hearing for 10 a.m. Tuesday.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Broward elections supervisor Brenda Snipes said her office had reviewed 92 different styles of ballots — voters get different ballots depending on where they live — and none were missing Amendment 2.

“In reviewing and reviewing and going back looking through our ballots we found Amendment 2 on all 92 of those styles so it’s still not totally clear why this voter did not have Amendment 2,” Snipes said. She added that she believes that the faulty ballots were test samples for Oakland Park. After a city candidate dropped out, she said, her office recoded the Oakland Park ballot, leading to a creation of a new test ballot. Her office did not notice the missing marijuana question on the test ballots, which are not supposed to be sent to voters but somehow were.

At a maximum, Snipes said, only seven of those test ballots were printed. She allowed reporters, as well as a representative from United for Care, the political committee backing the amendment, to review the 92 ballot styles Friday.

But amendment backers were skeptical of Snipes’ explanation after it became clear that she didn’t know precisely what went wrong or exactly how many ballots lack the closely watched amendment. Broward is the most left-leaning county in the state, and amendment backers are counting on its voters for a large share of support.

“What continues to concern me is it does not seem that the supervisor knows for certain the extent of the problem,” said Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care. “They have a strongly held belief it is this very isolated incident [Snipes] described this afternoon but they don’t know for sure. Until they do I remain incredibly concerned.”

The problem arose when a Broward voter contacted the Sun Sentinel after she discovered that her ballot did not contain Amendment 2, which would legalize the use of medical marijuana for people with some debilitating diseases.

Anne Sallee, an Oakland Park resident and former city commissioner, said the amendment question was also missing from her husband’s mail-in ballot.

Snipes asked Sallee to bring in her ballot. That led Snipes to investigate what went wrong and to examine the 92 different ballot styles.

Sallee’s ballot is part of NORML’s lawsuit, which says there is “imminent danger that a significant portion of the voting public in Broward County, Florida, will be deprived of the opportunity to fully participate” in the 2016 election.

“She is going to have to go before a judge and document every single ballot she has printed,” said Norm Kent, a Broward attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of NORML.

Kent said it remains unclear how many ballots omitted the question.

“We don’t know whether this affects one city and one precinct and 8,000 voters or 80,000 voters,” he said.

On Monday, elections officials will start opening mail-in ballots. Snipes said she will instruct elections officials to examine the ballots to determine if the medical marijuana question is on them. The public will be allowed to watch that process from 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Monday, and Pollara said he will have a representative attend and will follow up with a press conference.

Kendall Coffey, an election law expert, told the Miami Herald that the court could require an immediate review of all the different versions of the Broward ballot to identify where the medical marijuana question might have been omitted.

The logistics of issuing new corrective ballots are complicated, especially if it involves a large number.

“The least difficult approach may be to notify voters — through media and otherwise — that if they reside in one of the applicable precincts and are voting absentee, they can secure a new ballot,” he said. “In that scenario, previous ballots for the precinct could be separated and discarded upon receipt of a new ballot from the voter.”

So far, about 186,000 mail ballots have been requested by Broward voters and not yet returned, and about 62,000 have been completed and returned.

In general, polls suggest voters are ready to pass Amendment 2 by wide margins. A United for Care internal survey released Friday put the amendment’s support at 74 percent. Other independent polls have put support for the amendment at 73 and 77 percent. A constitutional amendment needs 60 percent voter approval to pass.

The missing ballot question also concerned the group opposing the amendment.

“It is critical that all voters have the opportunity to vote on this Constitutional Amendment and hopefully stop it from being embedded in our constitution where it will become a permanent and unchangeable fixture of life in Florida,” said Christina Johnson, spokeswoman for Vote No On 2.

Snipes said that if other voters are missing the marijuana question on their ballot they can get a new ballot from the elections office.

“An election is a big operation and there will be some things that don’t go well,” she said. “Broward issues get quite a bit of publication. We want voters to know when there is an issue we are going to address the issue and take care of it.”

Last week, the Sun Sentinel reported on another ballot problem in Broward: 173,000 ballots had confusing language for a countywide question about a sales tax increase for transportation projects. In English, Spanish and Creole, the options were YES/SI/WI and NO/NO/NON. But the ballots went out reading YES/SI/NO. Snipes said at the press conference Friday that a notice will be included about the language problem.

And on primary election night Aug. 30, early election results were posted before polls closed at 7 p.m. A vendor took responsibility, saying the results were posted accidentally. Posting results before polls close is a felony under Florida law. Prosecutors declined to file charges, saying there appeared to be no intent to post the results early.

Miami Herald reporters David Smiley and Carli Teproff contributed to this article.