Broward County

Scott taps Republican ‘team player’ to oversee voting in Florida’s most Democratic county

Brenda Snipes, Broward supervisor of elections, on Nov. 12, 2018.
Brenda Snipes, Broward supervisor of elections, on Nov. 12, 2018. Sun Sentinel/TNS

Florida Gov. Rick Scott suspended Broward County elections supervisor Brenda Snipes from office Friday, unceremoniously ending the tenure of the state’s most controversial elections chief and likely ensuring that a Republican “team player” will oversee voting in Florida’s Democratic bastion during the 2020 presidential elections.

Scott signed an executive order Friday ordering that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement oversee Snipes’ exit, effective immediately. He cited “misfeasance, incompetence and neglect of duty” in removing the 15-year elections veteran, who had hoped to quietly step down in early January following a tumultuous election and recount.

“Every eligible voter in Florida deserves their vote to be counted and should have confidence in Florida’s elections process,” Scott said in a statement. “After a series of inexcusable actions, it’s clear that there needs to be an immediate change in Broward County and taxpayers should no longer be burdened by paying a salary for a supervisor of elections who has already announced resignation.”

Scott will replace Snipes with Peter Antonacci, a Republican attorney who recently led Enterprise Florida, the state’s beleaguered corporate recruitment arm. The governor has tapped Antonacci for multiple roles in recent years, relying on him to direct the South Florida Water Management District and serve as Palm Beach state attorney. Antonacci, a former prosecutor and deputy attorney general, has also served as general counsel to Scott, who once called him a “good team player.”

Pete Antonacci was sworn in Thursday as the new supervisor of elections in Broward County. He was appointed by outgoing Gov. Rick Scott to replace the suspended Brenda Snipes.

“I know that Pete will be solely focused on running free and fair elections, will not be running for election and will bring order and integrity back to this office,” Scott said.

Snipes’ ouster is hardly unexpected, despite her looming resignation.

She became the source of national controversy in the days after the Nov. 6 midterm elections as her office struggled to count tens of thousands of ballots that, as tallies belatedly updated, helped push races for U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner into mandatory statewide recounts. Scott, who saw his lead over Sen. Bill Nelson shrink dramatically as Broward updated its votes, held a Nov. 8 press conference in front of the publicly owned Governor’s Mansion and accused Snipes of voter fraud without offering any evidence.

The allegations kicked off swirling conspiracy theories that reached all the way to the Oval Office, where President Donald Trump tweeted claims that Snipes tried to steal his win in Florida during the 2016 presidential election. In the ensuing days, protesters railed outside Snipes’ Lauderhill headquarters.

But Snipes’ problems were real.

Though his executive order lacks any allegations of fraud, it points to Snipes’ inability to provide basic information to the public and media after Election Day, and to his campaign’s successful lawsuit demanding public records and information related to counted and uncounted votes. It notes that during the count and recount, Snipes’ staff misplaced thousands of ballots, missed a deadline to turn in updated vote tallies, and separated hundreds of anonymous provisional ballots from their signed envelopes, resulting in Broward’s submission of about two dozen invalid ballots to the state as part of its official vote count.

By the time she submitted her resignation, Snipes — whose office had already dealt with years of missteps — had lost support among Democrats, some of whom blamed her for possibly designing a ballot that led to thousands of voters in a heavily Democratic county overlooking the Senate race.

Still, a persistent concern voiced after Snipes announced her plans to step down was the likelihood of a political appointee taking her place.

“I hope I’m wrong, but I’m assuming it would be an active partisan Republican in Florida’s most Democratic county,” Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller, who did not support Snipes, said the day after she submitted her letter to Scott. “If they were inclined, a supervisor of elections could cause all sorts of harm.”

Antonacci, 70, could not be reached Friday on his cellphone. He will serve the remainder of Snipes’ term, which runs through the 2020 presidential election.

Under the Florida Constitution, the Florida Senate is tasked with holding a hearing by which Snipes would be officially removed from office. But that process seems unlikely to take place given that Snipes had already submitted a resignation effective Jan. 4 and the Senate has three months to begin its proceedings.

Snipes will receive no pay or benefits while suspended. It’s unclear if her suspension will affect the pension she is set to receive upon her retirement as supervisor.

Ironically, Snipes became Broward’s elections chief almost exactly 15 years ago after her predecessor, Miriam Oliphant, was suspended by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush appointed Snipes, a Democrat, to replace Oliphant, who later sued to be reinstated. During the proceedings, Bush hired attorneys to represent his office — a team that included Antonacci.

Pete Antonacci, as special counsel for the Governor’s office, left, asks a question of a witness during the Senate hearing of suspended Broward County Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant, right, Monday, July 19, 2004, in Tallahassee, Fla. Henry Hunter, Oliphant’s attorney is seated center. PHIL COALE AP File

Antonacci has never led an elections office before. But, he had no experience recruiting businesses when Scott tapped him to lead Enterprise Florida, and had no experience managing flood systems when he was asked to lead the South Florida Water Management District.

Likewise, Snipes, a retired public school principal and administrator, had no experience running an elections office when Bush appointed her 15 years ago. She was elected the following year, and reelected three times after, most recently in 2016.

Snipes could not be reached Friday. Burnadette Norris-Weeks, Snipes’ contracted attorney, said she was not aware that Scott had removed Snipes and couldn’t comment.

“This is the first I’m hearing of it,” she said. “I can not help you.”