Broward County

Embattled Broward elections boss to GOP lawyers: We’re doing everything by the book

Broward Canvassing Board member Judge John D. Fry (L) explains how absentee ballots are processed and authenticated Thursday at the supervisor of elections headquarters to David Shestokas, an attorney with the Republican National Lawyers Association.
Broward Canvassing Board member Judge John D. Fry (L) explains how absentee ballots are processed and authenticated Thursday at the supervisor of elections headquarters to David Shestokas, an attorney with the Republican National Lawyers Association. Miami Herald

Calling allegations that her office mishandled absentee ballots “incendiary,” Broward elections supervisor Brenda C. Snipes told Republican attorneys after an inside look at her operations Thursday morning that the state’s bluest county is doing everything legally and by the book.

“We don’t run a slipshod operation here,” Snipes told two GOP lawyers who came to South Florida from Chicago and Houston. “So for someone to say we mishandled thousands of absentee ballots — that’s totally inaccurate.”

Snipes was visibly defiant one day after Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia accused her office of opening tens of thousands of mail-in ballots without the proper review of an independent canvassing board tasked with overseeing and certifying elections. Ingoglia — who backed off Wednesday following a compromise — also said Snipes had erred by giving the public only a half-hour each morning to observe.

Snipes and members of the board, however, said they’ve followed the process outlined by law, which allows the 161,000 ballots submitted so far to be sorted, reviewed, authenticated and opened — but not invalidated — under the supervision of only one representative of the canvassing board.

But they remained under fire Thursday from the Republican National Lawyers Association, which argues that under the current process the public will have no opportunity to challenge the vast majority of Broward’s accepted absentee ballots.

“Bottom line: the law is still not being followed and Broward continues to process vote-by-mail ballots illegally,” said RNLA Executive Director Michael Thielen.

The back-and-forth comes just days before the Nov. 8 election, and at a time of heightened sensitivity over Republican nominee Donald Trump’s allegations of “rigged elections” and Democratic warnings of voter intimidation. While Republicans called for more transparency Thursday, Democrats accused conservatives of trying to undermine the vote in the county with 600,000 registered Democrats — the highest number of any county in Florida.

“We will not accept bullying,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said during an early voting rally with President Obama at FIU. She said Broward is crucial to Hillary Clinton’s chances of beating Trump on Nov. 8.

Snipes has also been defensive after dealing with a series of complications this election season involving the premature publication of primary election results by a vendor and the absence of a medical marijuana amendment on a handful of ballots. She criticized the Miami Herald and said her office has been treated unfairly by the press.

“For some reason in Broward County our issues get blown out of proportion,” she said.

Still, to ensure faith in the county’s elections process, Judge John D. Fry — one of three judges who make up Broward’s canvassing board — said he told members of both parties Wednesday that he would be present during ballot canvassing every day until the entire board convenes again Monday morning. He also said he would entertain all requests to observe the canvassing of ballots.

“I told them anything that we do that you want to observe, I’d love to have you here,” Fry said.

On Thursday, two attorneys from each party — Larry Davis and Sunrise Mayor Mike Ryan on the Democrat side, David Shestokas and Joe Nixon for the Republican National Lawyers Association — took him up on his offer.

Fry gave them the tour of Snipes’ mail-in ballot processing operation, which consisted of two large rooms and about 50 visible employees at her Lauderhill headquarters off State Road 7. In the first room, Fry showed them where mail-in ballots, after being received in their sealed envelopes, are initially scanned through a computerized system and sorted. Then, next door, Fry said multiple employees with blue rubber gloves go over each individual ballot envelope to ensure that voters have penned their signature — and that it matches the signature on record.

Ballots without signatures or with signatures that vary from those on file are flagged, and then the entire batch is re-entered and sorted again in the computer. The problematic ballots set aside are then given to a small group of employees with laptops who contact voters to inform them that they need to correct the problem with their ballot. The envelopes of ballots authenticated by elections staff — trained by handwriting experts — are cut in the first room and can’t be challenged on the basis of signature, Fry acknowledged.

At last count, roughly 700 ballots were missing signatures, and about 35 had problematic signatures, according to Kevron Aird, an assistant for the Broward supervisor’s voter services director.

The entire process is conducted each day under the supervision of an alternate of the canvassing board, Fry said. The board itself will begin reviewing and deciding the validity of any unresolved absentee ballots when it convenes on Monday, he said, and will display each ballot on a monitor for the public to see.

“I verified we’re doing it the right way,” Fry said.

In statements Thursday, both the Republican Party of Florida and the party’s lawyers association said they have representatives observing elections across the state, not just in Broward, and the party said it only sent its letter after Snipes failed to respond to earlier attempts to address concerns about the process. The state party said it was “pleased” with Fry’s presence and transparency.

But Charles Lichtman, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer at Berger Singerman who has served as a lawyer for the Florida Democratic Party in the past, said Snipes had nothing to clarify, and party lawyers can’t file a challenge regarding a ballot signature anyway because they wouldn’t have personal knowledge about the voter’s handwriting.