Florida's Secretary of State plans to send an elections expert to the state's second-largest county during the upcoming elections to "ensure that all laws are followed," after a judge ruled that the Broward Supervisor of Elections illegally destroyed ballots cast in a 2016 congressional race.
Broward Circuit Judge Raag Singhal issued an order Friday determining that Supervisor Brenda Snipes' office improperly discarded thousands of ballots cast two years ago in the Democratic primary race between Tim Canova and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. In a ruling first reported by Politico, Singhal sided with Canova, who filed a lawsuit last year after he said Snipes ignored and then illegally obstructed his request to copy and inspect ballots.
Snipes contends that her office kept scanned, electronic copies of the ballots and did nothing wrong. She plans to challenge the order. But heading into the mid-term elections, Singhal's determination that Snipes broke state and federal law is sure to spark controversy around an office that oversees voting in Florida's most reliably Democratic county.
"Given all the scrutiny going on about elections processes these days and elections concerns, one has to wonder why on the eve of having to produce these records they were destroyed," Frank Rainer, an attorney for Canova, said in an interview.
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Canova and Snipes have been wrangling over ballots for 18 months, dating back to a records request filed by a Canova representative shortly after he lost the primary election for Florida's 23rd Congressional District to Wasserman Schultz by a 16-point margin in a race where nearly 200,000 votes were cast. The district dips a little into Dade County, but is mostly located in Broward.
Concerned about the integrity of the election, Canova wanted to inspect paper ballots and obtain copies. He sued in June 2017, arguing that Snipes was stonewalling him.
Canova's first lawsuit was dismissed as Snipes fought back, calling his records requests unreasonable and arguing that Canova was trying to conduct his own manual recount of the election in ways that ran afoul of state law. But Canova amended his complaint, and in November Snipes' office admitted in court that they'd destroyed paper ballots two months earlier.
Snipes' office, however, said a vendor made and retained digital copies of every ballot cast in the race. The destruction of the ballots was not intentional, nor was it illegal, said Burnadette Norris-Weeks, an attorney for Snipes.
"We’re going to appeal," said Norris-Weeks. "We think the judge is wrong."
The controversy is sure to draw extra scrutiny on the Broward elections office, which has been dogged by problems and allegations for years, dating back to the infamous 2000 presidential recount and the removal of Snipes' predecessor, Miriam Oliphant, from office in 2003. More recently, Broward prosecutors investigated Snipes' office in 2016 but chose not to pursue charges after a vendor accidentally posted primary elections results before the polls closed. Snipes was also sued unsuccessfully by a group pushing a medical marijuana ballot referendum after the question was left off some ballots.
When Snipes was hit by a series of allegations from Republican officials during the 2016 general election, her office argued that Broward's elections department had become a convenient target for political attacks and the media. Canova ran in 2016 as a Democrat. He is now challenging Wasserman Schultz again, as an independent.
Singhal ruled that Canova, a Nova Southeastern University law professor, be awarded attorney's fees.
Asked for comment on the ruling, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott said the governor's administration is reviewing Singhal's order.
"The Secretary of State’s office will continue to ensure that every Supervisor of Elections understands and follows the law," Scott's office said in a statement first issued to Politico. "During the upcoming election, the Department of State will send a Florida elections expert from the Division of Elections to Supervisor Snipes’ office to ensure that all laws are followed so the citizens of Broward County can have the efficient, properly run election they deserve."