As Florida headed toward multiple recounts, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., went on a Twitter tear directed at Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes.
Rubio took aim at the supervisor in one of Florida’s blue bastions as the county was still tabulating ballots more than 40 hours after the polls closed. Big races for U.S. Senate, governor and state agriculture commissioner hung in the balance.
Hours later, there was yet another lawsuit filed against Snipes, this time from Gov. Rick Scott, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate. A Broward judge ruled in Scott’s favor and found Snipes was in violation of Florida public records laws for not fulfilling a record’s request by Scott’s campaign.
Is Rubio right about Broward’s past of election problems?
Former Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Snipes, a former school principal, to replace Miriam Oliphant. Oliphant was removed from office amid mismanagement in 2003 following a string of problems in the 2002 primary election.
Snipes initially drew praise for cleaning up the office and has repeatedly won re-election. But in recent years, she has faced scrutiny about her competence amid a series of lawsuits, errors and sluggish vote counting.
Broward’s left-leaning electorate is key in statewide races because it has the second-largest number of registered voters with nearly 1.2 million, behind Miami Dade.
The lawsuits that Rubio cited were filed in 2017. Snipes lost both lawsuits and has appealed them.
One lawsuit was filed by Tim Canova after he lost a Democratic primary to U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in 2016. Canova, concerned about the integrity of the election, wanted to inspect the paper ballots after he lost. He said she refused to comply, and he sued.
Snipes testified that her office had destroyed the ballots after she signed an order Sept. 1, 2017 to authorize destruction of boxes. But under federal law, ballots are supposed to be preserved for 22 months.
Broward Judge Raag Singhal ruled in May against Snipes, finding "premature destruction of the records unlawful and in violation of the Public Records Act."
Following the ruling, the state announced it would send election experts to monitor her office.
The other lawsuit was filed by the Republican Party of Florida in 2017 and pertained to Snipes’ procedures for opening mail-in ballots. GOP poll watchers said in 2016 her office opened mail in ballots in private.
In August before the 2018 primary, Singhal issued a declaratory injunction that prevented Snipes from opening the ballots before the county’s Canvassing Board met.
However, Singhal wrote that the lawsuit pertained to handling of ballots in future elections, and not whether Snipes violated state law in past elections.
We sent the judges’ findings in both lawsuits to experts on elections law and government.
Chris Sautter, a recount expert and adjunct lecturer at American University, said that in the Canova case, "destroying ballots clearly violates federal law."
With respect to the Republican Party of Florida case, declaratory injunctions are a common remedy courts use to compel public officials to perform duties they are not performing, Sautter said.
Nova Southeastern University law professor Bob Jarvis said that Singhal’s injunction was issued to prevent future violations.
"That’s what injunctions typically do – they prevent further law-breaking," he said.
Other times in court, Snipes prevailed.
In 2016, a Broward judge found no harm done to a handful of voters who initially received absentee ballots that omitted an amendment to legalize medical marijuana. Snipes offered replacement ballots to those voters.
In April, a federal judge sided with Snipes in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Rights Union, a conservative group. The judge concluded that Snipes made reasonable efforts to purge ineligible voters from the rolls.
Some other Broward elections problems didn’t result in litigation, such as when the county election website posted results about 30 minutes before the polls closed in the 2016 primary.
VR Systems, a contractor for the elections supervisor, took responsibility. Broward prosecutors declined to file charges, finding essentially that it was a mistake.
Snipes did not respond to a request for comment.
Rubio said the Broward elections department "has a history of violating the law."
Rubio’s tweet linked to a lawsuit in which a judge found Snipes prematurely unlawfully destroyed ballots. In the other case Rubio cited, the judge issued an injunction preventing Snipes from opening mail-in ballots before the canvassing board convened.
It is worth mentioning, though, that Snipes has also won two cases in which she was sued: one related to a handful of ballots that omitted an amendment question and another which pertained to removing ineligible voters.
We rate this statement Mostly True.