Broward County

Broward prosecutors reviewing elections office posting results early

Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda C.Snipes
Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda C.Snipes Miami Herald Staff

When Broward County posted election results online before the polls closed Tuesday night, it was the election night screw-up seen around Florida.

It is a felony to release results while voters are still casting ballots. Within a couple of hours, a vendor took full responsibility, but a chain of events was already in motion: On Tuesday night, the state elections chief, Ken Detzner, criticized the slip-up as “unacceptable” and called for an investigation — prompting the Broward state attorney to launch a review Wednesday.

As the drama was unfolding in a warehouse at the Lauderhill Mall where Broward tabulates results, Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes coasted to a landslide victory over her Democratic primary opponent and deferred to the vendor to explain what went down.

Despite the election website problems, experts say it’s unlikely that anyone will get charged with a crime.

State law says that “any supervisor of elections, deputy supervisor of elections, canvassing board member, election board member, or election employee who releases the results of any election prior to the closing of the polls in that county on election day commits a felony of the third degree.”

But J.C. Planas, an election lawyer and professor at St. Thomas University, said the purpose of the statute is to prevent elections officials from releasing information in a way that could impact turnout. On Tuesday in Broward, results based on absentee ballots and early voting were posted around 6:40 p.m., with 20 minutes to spare before polls closed on a rainy election day where the county’s turnout was an abysmal 16.5 percent.

“It smells of an embarrassing sloppy error,” Planas said. “Nothing smells like nefarious intent.”

University of Florida election law professor Jon Mills said it’s worth authorities investigating what went wrong. However, “we are usually not putting people in jail unless there is some element of intent or gross negligence.”

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner contacted Broward State Attorney Mike Satz Tuesday night to ask him to review the matter.

“It has come to my attention that certain election results were released in Broward County prior to the closing of the polls in that county,” Detzner wrote in an email to Satz at 8:47 p.m. Tuesday. “This is unacceptable. I ask that you investigate this incident to determine whether further legal action is appropriate.”

Satz’s spokesman, Ron Ishoy, told the Miami Herald Wednesday: “We have initiated a review of the matter this morning.”

Satz will likely review the affidavit submitted by the vendor, VR Systems, to the Broward canvassing board. He may also seek to interview employees at VR Systems.

Ronald Meyer, an election attorney in Tallahassee, said he doubts that anyone will be charged assuming the vendor’s explanation is accurate.

“I would assume that the State Attorney would assign someone to make a determination of whether the vendor mistake explanation is sustained,” he said.

The Miami Herald first spotted the early results posted at at about 6:40 p.m. and tweeted about it.

On Tuesday night, Mindy Perkins, the CEO of VR Systems, took responsibility for posting the partial results early and spoke via telephone to the canvassing board to explain what happened.

The board asked Perkins to submit an affidavit explaining what went wrong. Here is a summary of what she wrote in the affidavit released Wednesday:

At 4:36 p.m., a Broward elections employee contacted VR Systems for help to set up a results link on the elections’ website. The VR technician mistakenly used the wrong link which allowed the website to later go live when it was attempted to be previewed.

At 6:30 p.m., when a county elections employee loaded up the file to preview the information, the file accidentally posted live, showing absentee and early-vote results. VR Systems received a call at about 6:48 p.m. from an elections employee alerting the firm to the problem and it was corrected at 6:53 p.m. However, viewers who had already accessed the early results could continue to see them until 7:23 p.m.

The problem overtaxed the preview server and caused a crash, temporarily suspending the reporting of results. The server problem was resolved at 7:23 p.m. and then counties were able to start posting results. But Broward was the last to be able to access the data, at about 7:52 p.m. (The affidavit doesn’t clearly state how many counties were impacted by the server crash but it was clear that it wasn’t just Broward.)

“This occurrence has never happened before with VR,” states the affidavit signed by Perkins. “Unfortunately, it was caused by human error of a support staff member attempting to provide prompt assistance. This mistake is not in keeping with VR’s service and performance standards which our customers have come to expect and VR assumes responsibility for this error. VR has already taken measures for an extensive review of our procedures and technology to ensure that this never occurs again.”

The majority of Florida counties use VR Systems as a vendor. The company’s website says it does work for more than 100 jurisdictions in seven states.

“Technically they are very good — they have a good reputation,” Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho said.

Sancho said that the server crash prevent his county from posting results at 7 p.m.

“We were notified instantly about that from VR,” Sancho said. “It took until 7:40 to restore the results tabulation.”

Detzner also contacted Broward Sheriff Scott Israel Tuesday night but Israel didn’t speak to him. Detzner also alerted Gov. Rick Scott about the situation.

“As Secretary Detzner stated last night, it is unacceptable that results were released prior to polls closing. The Secretary has referred this breach to the state attorney and the sheriff in Broward County for further review,” Detzner’s spokeswoman, Meredith Beatrice, said Wednesday. “Overall, Florida had a very successful Primary Election day and we look forward to preparing for the General Election.”

Snipes didn’t respond to the Miami Herald’s questions Wednesday, but a spokeswoman said Snipes was investigating what happened and referred the media to statements by VR Systems.

Snipes was first appointed supervisor in 2003 by Gov. Jeb Bush after her predecessor, Miriam Oliphant, was removed from office for botching the 2002 election. She has easily won re-election since that time. But this year something new happened: dozens of current and former elected officials publicly backed Snipes’ opponent, David Brown. That showed that frustration had mounted about Snipes’ office operations including slow upgrades to her website.

Mills said he understands why the state wants a serious review of what went wrong, since the vendor serves multiple counties in Florida. When Donald Trump faces Hillary Clinton on Nov. 8th, the world will be watching how Florida election officials post results.

“We don’t want Florida 2016 to have a bunch of early releases,” he said.

Carli Teproff, David Smiley and Michael Auslen contributed to this article.