Recount 2018: What Florida 2000 tells us about Florida 2018
A Republican party operative from New York who made his name influencing the 2000 presidential recount process is back in South Florida this week on the payroll of the Republican National Committee.
Joseph Brendan Quinn arrived quietly in Fort Lauderdale last Friday and made his way to the Broward Department of Elections in Lauderhill, as three key races went to recounts triggered by razor-thin margins. High-profile Republicans cried foul.
“I have many years of experience with recounts so they asked me to come,” Quinn said about his latest contract with the RNC. He expects his contract to continue through the end of a manual recount.
Quinn was executive director of the New York state Republican committee in 2000 when the party flew him to Florida on a hearts-and-minds campaign intended to help Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush win the recount and not Democrat Al Gore. Quinn is most famous for allegedly leading the raucous upheaval outside the office of the Miami-Dade supervisor of elections — later dubbed the “Brooks Brothers Riot” — that some ultimately credited for the abrupt termination of recount efforts in the county. (Brad Blakeman, a Bush campaign operative, publicly took credit for starting the raucous protest, the Washington Post reported.)
Now a private political consultant, Quinn’s back in South Florida this week — this time in Broward County — on a contract with the RNC to observe the recount process, Quinn said Thursday. Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes has come under fire from Republican leaders including President Donald Trump who, without evidence, accused Snipes of trying to “steal” the election. Gov. Rick Scott also accused the Snipes administration of fraud, but provided no evidence either. Scott’s race against incumbent Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson is one of the recounts underway.
Still, numerous irregularities over the years have put Broward in the political hot seat. On Thursday, the machine recount numbers were rejected by the state after the elections department filed its results two minutes past the 3 p.m. deadline. Observers on both sides expected protests outside of the Lauderhill location on Friday, the day the department is supposed to begin its manual recount of the Scott-Nelson votes and another statewide race. A group of avid Republican supporters has been camped outside of the office all week.
Blakeman told the Post watching the recount on TV has been like reliving the 2000 presidential recount.
“I’m watching people play my role on TV,” Blakeman told the Post. “There’s a guy with a bullhorn from Scott’s campaign, signs outside recount center. Even the verbiage of Scott, calling Nelson a sore loser, is the same.”
Quinn’s daily routine also seems to come straight out of an RNC playbook written during the 2000 recount.
Quinn spends much of his days in the observation room at the Broward elections office in discussions with the group of half a dozen Republican political consultants, lawyers and staff from the Scott and Ron DeSantis campaigns. He then makes rounds, rubbing shoulders and trying to win friends with other observers and members of the media. Quinn even bought a cake for a Miami Herald reporter on her birthday, though she did not accept the gift.
Outside the Broward elections office, Quinn befriended the police officers on duty, passing hours telling jokes and laughing. He spoke frequently with conservative protesters camped outside the police tape. “He wouldn’t say much, just thanks for representing the party,” Linda Schainberg told the Herald.
“It worked then, and they are thinking it might work well again,” Blakeman told the Post.
Both Quinn and Blakeman were part of a group of about a dozen heavy hitters deployed to Florida by the RNC in 2000 when it became clear that the presidential race between Bush and Gore would come down to a few votes cast in Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach counties. The strategy, reportedly devised by Roger Stone, was to keep Bush in the lead with a three-pronged approach: legal efforts, the official recount, and winning the PR battle with continuous campaigning.
The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that Quinn was sent first to Tampa, then Fort Lauderdale, then Miami, then West Palm Beach, at one point becoming so frustrated with the many moves that he attacked Bush lawyer Kevin Martin.
“I threw a garbage can at him and threw him out of the room,” Quinn told the Times.
Quinn ended up in Miami on Nov. 22, 2000 when, according to the New York Times and several subsequent reports, he led a sit-in outside the elections office after officials moved ballot reviews to a private room, saying the many public interruptions were causing the recount process to take too long.
Soon the several dozen protesters were banging on the glass door of the elections office demanding to be let in. Many were paid Republican operatives, flown in by the party, later identified in a photo by the Washington Post. Quinn is not in the picture.
“They were banging on the glass with clip boards. We were afraid the whole thing could collapse,” said South Florida attorney Joe Geller, who had walked in from the elevator in the middle of the chaos. “They were chanting, ‘Let us in, let us in.’ ”
Geller, a Democrat and now a state representative, asked for a sample ballot he planned to use to demonstrate a flaw in the machine tabulation system only to be almost immediately swarmed by protesters accusing him of stealing a ballot.
“Then I was surrounded by all of these pushing, shouting, shoving, kicking, elbowing people,” Geller remembers. He eventually got away with the help of a police officer who intervened. The protest had a lasting effect.
“People were nervous and frightened and upset,” said Geller, who saw the canvassing board huddled after the protesters left the building.
Later that night, Miami-Dade elections officials called off the rest of the recount process.
“Violence, fear and physical intimidation literally shut down the counting of votes,” Geller said.
About Quinn’s presence in Broward County, Geller said, “I don’t know him. I don’t know what his role was. In general, if anybody who was responsible for that attempt to stop the counting of votes is back, that’s a warning sign to beware.”