Broward County

The nation is watching Broward’s election chief. Here’s some troubling history

Over the past several weeks and months, you have seen stories about problems with Broward ballots.

Like this one:

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And this one:

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And this:

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And this.

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And summed up recently here:

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With South Florida again in the national eye on races too close to call and troubles in counting and re-counting votes, so, too is the supervisor of elections.

Broward Supervisor Brenda Snipes took office 15 years ago after the governor suspended her predecessor, Miriam Oliphant.

Here is a look back at how she rose to office and the troubled history of the office:

Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda C. Snipes, center, at her offices in Lauderhill, Florida as the canvassing board reviews ballots on Saturday, November 10, 2018. MATIAS J. OCNER

Snipes elected to office

Sept. 1, 2004: Democratic voters showed their confidence in Brenda Snipes as supervisor of elections, denying Miriam Oliphant’s bid to take back her job. Snipes said she felt “validated” by her landslide victory. “

A lot of people tagged me as some kind of pawn. Some people tried to make my appointment by the governor a negative thing,” Snipes said Tuesday night. “Now I can say I’m appointed and elected.”

Snipes, who was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to replace Oliphant, will go on to face Republican Steve Shin in the general election. Oliphant, 50, who was suspended by Bush for incompetence last November, trailed Snipes and community activist Jamie Bloodworth by a large margin. Snipes, 61, has overseen two successful elections since she took over the office in November.

Under her leadership, the office stabilized for the first time since the 2000 presidential recount and the troubled 2002 primary election. Voters said they liked the way Snipes, a former schools administrator, improved office morale and worked to restore voter confidence. “Brenda has come in and . . . provided leadership and brought back the stability that that office should have,” Oakland Park resident

Chuck Zloch said after voting at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Lauderdale. Democratic voters were sharply divided in one of Oliphant’s strongholds, the predominantly black Melrose Park neighborhood in central Fort Lauderdale.

“Snipes was my old boss at the School Board,” said Glory Jackson, 52, a front office clerk at Millennium Middle School in Tamarac. “She’s very organized. I think she’s very capable of getting voting back on track. It was a circus.”

Voters dropping into the precinct were greeted by Oliphant’s sister, Robin Darville, known for her colorful outbursts in support of her sister. Some voters were sympathetic with Oliphant’s portrayal of the election as a chance for voters to undo an injustice imposed on her by the governor and a vindictive County Commission.

“She was accused of things she didn’t do,” said Robert Scott, 54, of Fort Lauderdale. He and his wife, Delphine, 44, voted for Oliphant at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale. Oliphant challenged the governor’s suspension this summer but hasn’t received a ruling. State senators will vote whether to uphold her suspension after a Senate lawyer overseeing the case issues a recommendation. That’s not likely to happen anytime soon because lawyers for the governor and Oliphant have until Sept. 14 to turn in written closing arguments.

Oliphant fights to get job back

July 17, 2004: Eight months after a humiliating ouster from Broward’s Supervisor of Elections office, Miriam Oliphant returned in her trademark red suit on Friday, declaring she would fight to get her job back.

Just 15 minutes before the deadline, Oliphant qualified to run for election, her hands shaking as she filled out paperwork and wrote a $7,726 check to cover the filing fee. Oliphant, who was suspended by Gov. Jeb Bush in November, has sat through five days of testimony on whether she should be reinstated and faces three more next week in Tallahassee as part of the Senate trial required by law. But Friday’s move lifts her fate neatly out of the hands of the Senate - where she has few friends — and puts it into the hands of Broward voters.

That’s because the trial will result in a recommendation to the Senate — but probably not before the Aug. 31 primary. And the Senate isn’t slated to meet until next year.

Miriam Oliphant. /Candance West /Miami Herald File

Oliphant will face two other Democrats in August: her replacement, Brenda Snipes, a former school administrator appointed by Bush to take her place; and Jamie Bloodworth, a community activist. Republican Steve Shin also qualified and will face the winner of the Democratic primary in the November general election.

“I’ve always maintained the honesty and integrity of Miriam Oliphant, and I think the voters of Broward County know that,” Oliphant said. Supporters, including people who sat through a week’s worth of testimony, said they are thrilled she’s giving them another chance to vote for her.

“I think she deserves another chance, another term as supervisor of elections,” said Eddye Campbell of Margate, who got off her overnight shift at a Margate retirement home at 8 a.m. Friday to come directly to Oliphant’s trial. “I think she deserves a chance to let the voters choose whether she stays or leaves,” said Phyllis Hope, who ran for Broward School Board in 2002. “I guess the voters will have the final word on this one.”

Other black leaders were concerned that Oliphant’s decision would set back race relations in the county. Don Bowen, president of the Urban League of Broward County, applauded Oliphant’s moxie and determination but said he wished voters could “turn the page and start a new chapter.”

“There is probably some sentimental vote that she’d get and some vote that some people will feel like this is their chance to stick it to the establishment,” Bowen said. “But I think for most voters, it will get down to a question of whether she has the competence to run that office, and I think the majority of voters have already made that determination.”

Oliphant, who was suspended without pay from her $128,769-a-year job, said her filing fee came from personal savings. Earlier this year, she asked for the state to pay her attorney’s fees, saying she was broke.

Oliphant’s attorney, Henry Hunter, would not say if she is paying him now. Oliphant and her attorney said her decision to run for reelection was a calculated one that came after watching the testimony from witnesses during her trial this week. Hunter’s case so far has focused on whether county commissioners gave Oliphant enough money to run her office adequately, as well as the idea that employees conspired to sabotage their boss.

The trial will shift next week to Tallahassee, where Oliphant said she’ll testify in her own defense. “Under the Constitution rights of the state of Florida, I, and the people, the voters who voted for me, are entitled to due process,” she said. “This is the day we have all been waiting for.”

However, Oliphant will not hear testimony from some of her most vocal critics: Broward County commissioners.

Her lawyer subpoenaed commissioners John Rodstrom Jr., Ilene Lieberman, Kristin Jacobs, Jim Scott, Lori Parrish, Suzanne Gunzburger, Diana Wasserman-Rubin and Josephus Eggelletion. But with the exception of Rodstrom, who testified Thursday, no one showed up. The commission is currently on its summer break and at least three of the commissioners are out of town.

A process server hired by Oliphant’s attorney testified that he left the papers with the county attorney when none of the county commissioners was in the office last week. Kahn said he would make an official ruling next week about whether to force them to testify.

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Brenda Snipes is introduced as the new Broward County Supervisor of Election in 2003. /J. Albert Diaz Miami Herald File/2003

Snipes takes over

Jan 21, 2003: Brenda Snipes was in Indiana, sharing her well-honed leadership skills with educators when local black leaders phoned and asked her to put those talents to a new test.

Snipes, 60, wasn’t everyone’s first choice to replace Miriam Oliphant as Broward County supervisor of elections. But longtime friends and loved ones say she may prove to be the best choice.

Raised in Talladega, Ala., Snipes started her career in a segregated Broward public school system and became a celebrated administrator and problem solver. She may be best known for parachuting into failing Markham Elementary School in Pompano Beach seven years ago.

Working in the awkward capacity of co-principal, she cooled tempers, soothed egos and won over teachers as the campus ascended from the brink of test-score oblivion.

“I don’t think Brenda ever had difficulty working with anybody. I think she could work with the Devil,” said Cora Braynon, a longtime friend. “She will tell you to go to hell, but she’ll do it in such a way that you’ll tell her, ‘Thank you.’ “

Snipes surfaced as a candidate for the elections job when black political leaders perused their short list and realized all the names were men. Art Kennedy, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, telephoned Dr. Mack King Carter, the powerful senior pastor of New Mount Olive Baptist Church.

“I said, ‘If we could put a female in the mix, who would you suggest’?” Kennedy said Thursday. “And he said, without any hesitation, Brenda Snipes.”

At first, Snipes didn’t want the job. “A lot of things appeared to have gone wrong,” said her husband, Walter Snipes Jr. “And she knew whoever went in there would have to make some corrections, would have to right some of the wrongs that had been done.”

Dorsey Miller, the Republican activist and former school district administrator, was called in to change her mind. The office just needed a manager, he told her, and she was a perfect choice. “She said all the right things” in a series of conversations about the job, stressing her people skills and her willingness to bring back able elections workers who had been fired, Kennedy said.

Dozens of sisters from Delta Sigma Theta, the national black sorority, sent Gov. Jeb Bush letters of support. By the start of last week, the job was hers.

The daughter of Alabama educators, Snipes came to South Florida when the principal of the all-black Blanche G. Ely High School telephoned Talladega College looking for a good prospect, according to her husband.

She progressed through the ranks and went to Markham Elementary in the summer of 1996 with orders to help move the Pompano Beach school off the district’s “critical list” of low-performing schools.

By the time she retired, Snipes had been promoted to area director of the Broward school district’s North Central office, overseeing 16 schools.

A generous state retirement program beckoned, and Snipes left the district in June. Asked by reporters why she wanted the job, Snipes smiled and said she probably would have remained with the school district longer had the state retirement plan allowed. “You get the point,” she replied. “I enjoy working. I enjoy challenges.”

Facts about Brenda Snipes:

- Joined Broward school district in 1964 as a teacher at the segregated Blanche G. Ely High School in Pompano Beach.

- Promoted to unusual “co-principal” job at Markham Elementary School on assignment to improve the campus. Scores rose, only to plunge after she left.

- Spent two years as area director in North Central Broward before retiring from the school district in June. * Works now as an educational leadership consultant.

- Personal: Snipes, 60, a Democrat, lives in Lauderdale Lakes with husband, Walter Snipes Jr. She has two grown daughters and remains active in Delta Sigma Theta, the national black sorority.

Governor suspends Oliphant

Nov. 21, 2003: Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday suspended Miriam Oliphant as Broward supervisor of elections and replaced her with a former elementary school principal, a dramatic move greeted with relief by even the most partisan Democrats.

Oliphant repeatedly demonstrated “gross ignorance of official duties and gross carelessness in the discharge of them,” Bush wrote in his order.

The Republican governor appointed Brenda Snipes, 60, a Democrat, to replace Oliphant, also a Democrat. The suspended supervisor’s case now goes to a trial in the state Senate; the governor’s general counsel will act as a prosecutor.

The governor’s order lays out grievances dating to the 2002 primary election — a contest so chaotic in Broward and Miami-Dade counties that Bush ordered polls open an additional two hours so people could vote.

“Ms. Oliphant may be content with failure,” Bush said in a letter he sent to the Senate. “She may accept thousands of Broward County voters turned away from ill-equipped polling places that open late. She may ignore the fundamental duty to protect every citizen’s right to vote; I will not.”

Bush’s order followed a report from Secretary of State Glenda Hood, in which Oliphant’s failures are enumerated. Hood had appointed a team to evaluate the Broward elections office in October.

A follow-up visit on Nov. 10 revealed little progress on basic election preparations, despite Oliphant’s insistence — in writing —- that she was making progress.

The governor’s letter to Senate President Jim King indicates that Oliphant exaggerated or misled Bush when she responded to Hood’s report.

“When there’s been a pattern of behavior and there’s been a pattern of neglect and the erosion of confidence, we needed to take action,” Hood said. “The confidence of the voters is first and foremost.”

Bush’s case against Oliphant includes charges that:

- Twenty-four precincts failed to open on time during the 2002 primary, in part, because Oliphant decided to deliver supplies herself. She also failed to notify poll workers on time that Bush had extended voting by two hours.

- Oliphant never counted 268 absentee ballots in the 2002 primary election, even though they had proper postmarks. The ballots were found in a filing cabinet several months later, after state investigators were tipped to their presence during a criminal inquiry.

- Oliphant did such a poor job following state requirements to update voter rolls that 17,000 ballots were returned as undeliverable during a recent mail-in election to 100,000 voters.

King said he might call a special session to take up the charges, because he wants to avoid a trial during the regular legislative session. “The only thing that I can tell you authoritatively is that the Senate is going to be deliberative,” King said. “We’re talking about an elected official who has every right to expect a fair hearing, and she will have that.”

By 2 p.m. Thursday, Oliphant’s replacement had met with county leaders to discuss her leadership of an office that seems so broken many wonder if it can be fixed. Snipes will be charged with overseeing a series of elections beginning in January and culminating with the 2004 presidential election.

“I think if I felt it couldn’t be done, I would not have said yes to this,” Snipes said. “I imagine that it won’t be done from an 8 to 5 perspective. I would envision putting in a lot of hours, calling in additional resources.”

Snipes was suggested by Dr. Mack King Carter, the influential senior pastor of New Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale. Snipes, a former teacher, rose through the ranks of the Broward school system on the strength of her administrative, problem-solving and people skills, retiring in June as an area director overseeing 16 Broward schools. Broward County commissioners, who had a pivotal role in administering the November 2002 election, are eager to help again, Mayor Ilene Lieberman said. That includes offering the county auditor and attorney to help assess finances and pending lawsuits.

If asked, Lieberman said, they also could consider offering the kind of intensive assistance they gave Oliphant in the 2002 general election. “The county stands ready, willing and able to work with the new supervisor,” the mayor said.

Oliphant’s suspension derails a political career that began with work as a civic activist, leading to her 1991 appointment to the Broward School Board. Before Thursday’s action by the governor, the charismatic former model weathered a criminal investigation, a scathing audit and several ethics complaints in just three years in the $128,769-a-year job.

Thursday morning, Oliphant’s employees were left stunned by the governor’s action. One woman cried after Oliphant broke the news in her conference room; others whispered excitedly into their phones, spreading the news. “She should have left gracefully while she still had a chance,” said one worker, reluctant to be named because she still feared retribution by Oliphant.

By 9:30 a.m. Thursday, dozens of county employees in the government center had heard the news and strolled by Oliphant’s first-floor office to see what was happening. A county locksmith stood by, waiting to change the locks once Oliphant left. By 11:15, Oliphant was escorted out of the office by deputies.

She walked out the same way she walked in nearly three years ago: proud, smiling and composed. She waved to employees in the front office but left without commenting before she was whisked away in a waiting pickup truck. Oliphant’s sister, Robin Darville, known for her colorful remarks in front of cameras, pulled up in a car shortly after, honking to attract attention and speaking out in support of her sister.

“It’s a shame what they’ve done to Mrs. Oliphant,” Darville shouted from behind the wheel, before police asked her to move. “I’m calling to all righteous people to please come out in support of Mrs. Oliphant. She has done nothing wrong.”

But the detailed report from the secretary of state’s office left the governor no choice, County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion said. Eggelletion, a longtime Oliphant supporter, said he lost confidence this fall when she fired top staff members, including her chief financial advisor.

“It’s a bittersweet day,” said Eggelletion, a Democrat. “I don’t think it was an easy decision for the governor. It has not been an easy decision for people like myself and other black officials in the community.”

“The main thing is seeing the ballots of the voters of Broward County are counted,” added Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, a Deerfield Beach commissioner who has served as president of the Broward League of Cities.

In a news conference after Oliphant left office, her attorney David Bogenschutz said he would sit down with her and look over the report. Rather than going on the attack, Bogenschutz spoke respectfully of Bush and made little attempt to find fault with his order. He said the action “says to me that the governor’s office felt very strongly about this. There are some pretty harsh words in there. Words like ‘neglect of duty,’ ‘misfeasance,’ ‘incompetence.’ But they’re just words.”