Broward County

Deal reached after GOP claims absentee ballots were handled improperly in Broward

Broward’s elections supervisor discusses ballots possibly missing Amendment 2

Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes talks to the media about a ballot that was missing Amendment 2 on Oct. 21, 2016.
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Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes talks to the media about a ballot that was missing Amendment 2 on Oct. 21, 2016.

A clash between the state Republican party and Broward County’s elections office over the handling of absentee ballots was settled Wednesday night only hours after it began.

At issue: whether Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda C. Snipes had broken the law by opening scores of mail-in ballots in private, and without the supervision of a canvassing board appointed to oversee and certify elections.

Snipes — whose office has dealt with a series of mishaps and complications this election cycle — received a letter Wednesday afternoon from Republican state party chairman Blaise Ingoglia alleging the elections department had illegally processed and opened scores of the more than 153,000 ballots that have been cast by mail so far in Broward.

Ingoglia said Snipes had erred by failing to convene Broward’s canvassing board while opening “tens of thousands” of absentee ballots, and by denying the public potential opportunities to contest problematic ballots.

“These illegal actions must stop immediately,” he wrote. “The Republican Party of Florida is prepared to take all necessary legal actions to ensure that Broward County conducts its election in compliance with the law.”

We don’t feel like we are doing anything illegal — this is the process we have always used

Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes

Snipes and current and past canvassing board members contested Ingoglia’s assertions when contacted Wednesday.

“The canvassing board has never opened the ballots,” Snipes said. “We have procedures we follow that are approved in our security manual sent to state. We don’t feel like we are doing anything illegal — this is the process we have always used.”

Still, within hours of receiving Ingoglia’s letter, a judge on Broward’s canvassing board had offered a two-step compromise that seemed to pacify Republicans.

▪ Starting Thursday morning, board member Judge John D. Fry said he will be at the supervisor’s office in person daily to oversee canvassing of mail-in ballots.

▪ Fry said he told representatives of the Republican and Democratic parties that they will also be allowed to have a representative on-hand at at all times as ballots are canvassed.

Fry’s offer — made on a day when Republican nominee Donald Trump brought his allegations of “rigged” elections to South Florida — likely averts an election eve imbroglio in a county with about 600,000 registered Democrats, the most in the state. It also potentially avoids yet another legal challenge for an elections department that recently went to court after ballots were discovered to be missing a medical marijuana amendment.

The Republican Party of Florida will continue to monitor the canvassing process to ensure there are no further violations of the law

state party chairman Blaise Ingoglia

“I am pleased that Broward County has quickly agreed to take corrective actions in response to the concerns raised in our letter,” Ingoglia said in a statement late Wednesday night. “The Republican Party of Florida will continue to monitor the canvassing process to ensure there are no further violations of the law.”

The issue over Broward’s handling of absentee ballots arose one week ago when David Shestokas, a Florida Bar-certified attorney, was sent by the Republican National Lawyers Association from Chicago to watch the election in Broward.

Like all of Florida’s 67 counties, Broward has a three-person canvassing board appointed to oversee the counting and certification of election results. Normally, the board would be manned by the elections supervisor, a county judge, and a county commissioner, but the board is comprised only of judges this election season because of Snipes’ reelection effort and the political activities of Broward’s commissioners. Alternates are also appointed.

Under state law, the board’s responsibilities include discretion over questionable or missing signatures on the sealed envelopes that hold mail-in ballots.

It wasn’t clear Wednesday to what detail the board must be involved in the vetting of ballot signatures — a 2005 Division of Elections advisory says the board must order the processing of absentee ballots but the “clerical” work of opening and running the ballots need only be done in the presence of one board member. But in four separate visits to the elections headquarters in Lauderhill, Shestokas said he never saw the canvassing board convene or supervise the opening of ballots, even though a public notice published by the elections office suggests the board is meeting daily.

He also says he was only allowed to observe ballot counting from 9 a..m. to 9:30 a.m.

In a secure room inside the elections office, Shestokas said he watched how elections department staff sorted ballot envelopes, examined signatures and opened ballots. On one occasion, he said, another person was also observing: a witness sent by the county government.

In addition to questioning why the full canvassing board wasn’t present, Shestokas said he wondered why members of the public couldn’t view mail ballots before they were accepted and opened. Florida law allows the public to challenge ballots they consider invalid.

“Essentially, they’re opening the ballots in secret,” said Shestokas, who said he passed along his observations to the RNLA without contacting the party or any campaign.

Snipes and members of Broward’s canvassing board defended their handling of absentee ballots Wednesday. Judge Daniel Kanner, a current member of the board, said flagged ballots are set aside to be handled by the board and only cleared ballots are opened and processed.

“The ballots that have been opened are not the questionable ballots,” he said.

Judge Sharon Zeller, who served as the chairwoman of the canvassing board during the Aug. 30 primary election, said Broward has operated the same way for years under the guidance of the Florida Division of Elections, with clerical staff trained by handwriting experts reviewing each ballot. The problematic ballots are set aside, she said, to be handled by the board.

“When [the Republican Party] talks in that letter about not allowing a protest, the protest would be filed for a ballot that one would argue should be illegal,” Zeller said. “Well, they’re only processing the ones that are legal. There is a signature in the box, and the signature matches the one on record. They’ve been doing this for years.”

This article was updated to reflect that Broward canvassing board member John D. Fry offered to be present and have members of the Republican and Democratic parties present during the canvassing of mail-in ballots in Broward. Elections Supervisor Brenda C. Snipes did not change the way her office handles the processing of the ballots.