LAUDERHILL, Fla. — On the scruffy, lonesome backside of a saffron-colored suburban mall, hard by a dark canal where iguanas are taking some sun, men are spooling out police tape.
At this time of year, at this place, that can only mean one thing: Another Florida election gone haywire.
On one side of the police line, a skinny guy in a long black dress and a poufed-up white wig spent a day mocking America’s most beleaguered elections supervisor, Broward County’s Brenda C. Snipes. On the other side of the line, inside a building girded by three security checkpoints, hastily recruited recount observers gawked in befuddlement through thick panes of glass as workers in blue surgical-style gloves stacked and sorted ballots.
The statewide machine recount playing out over the past five days in Florida’s 67 counties — a spectacle thick with lawsuits, paper-jammed machines, fact-free conspiracy theories, histrionics, street theater and baffling bungles — mixes deja vu with the aura of a dress rehearsal as it slogs and slides toward a 3 p.m. deadline Thursday that Democrats have hoped to extend.
For all its dim echoes of the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election recount saga, the daily follies are, in many respects, a dry run for the next presidential contest. It is an opportunity for partisan lawyers to burrow into the arcana of the process in hopes of tweaking the rules in their favor and for activists to sharpen their rhetoric for the next fight. The practice-game vibe is all the more amplified because the two premier races affected by the recount — Rep. Ron DeSantis’s (R) gubernatorial victory over Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) and Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) squeaker over incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) — seem unlikely to be reversed, even as the possibility of a hand recount in one or both races looms.
“Oh yeah, this is the beta for 2020,” Sherry Ashby, a retired real estate investor in an American-flag tank top, says in a dead-
certain conspiratorial tone as she casts a disapproving glance at the ballot-counting building.
“Of course!” chimes in Michael Kellett, a deeply tanned, 60-year-old disabled Army veteran, who nearly had to shout to be heard over the classic rock blaring from the protest tent a few steps away.
“They want to learn how much they can cheat!” Ashby says.
“They’re setting the stage for Hillary Clinton to steal the election!” Kellett says, name-
dropping President Trump’s 2016 campaign opponent whose allies have begun to agitate for her to run again.
Minute by minute, the news alerts — ricocheting into iPhones from Facebook pages and email inboxes — only inflame the faithful on both sides. One moment, it’s Patrick Murphy, a former Democratic U.S. congressman from Florida, announcing that, as bizarre as it sounds, his vote was invalidated because his signatures didn’t match. The next, it’s an elections commissioner in Bay County, Fla., vigorously defending his decision to let people displaced by a hurricane vote by email, despite the problem that email-voting may be against the law in Florida.
Inside a Broward County jail, Nikolas Cruz, who is accused of killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, registered, as a Republican, to vote in the election. On the Internet, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the erstwhile presidential candidate who was not up for reelection this year, engages in Twitter spats about the recount with reporters. As the recount reached its fifth day, Rubio, who often tweets Bible passages, sent one out Wednesday: “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and you cannot count what is not there. Ecclesiastes 1:15.”
Marc Elias, the lead attorney for Nelson, parried back at Rubio with a passage from Exodus: “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness.”
And so it has gone in the snipe-fest that is Florida’s 2018 election.
Earlier, Elias had sent pleas via Twitter for volunteer lawyers to help out. And Roger Stone, the longtime Trump confidant who happens to live in Broward County, has sent out videos demanding that Snipes be removed from office.
“Brenda Snipes has always been a house on fire,” Stone said in an interview with The Washington Post this week. Stone, who has said he was one of the organizers of the “Brooks Brothers riot” during the recount in 2000, when Republican activists chanted outside a meeting of election canvassers, cryptically added that he’s been “giving some advice here and there” about how Republicans should be steering public perceptions in the current recount imbroglio.
Nowhere has the rage been more concentrated than outside the inland mall in Lauderhill, where Broward’s elections chief, Snipes, houses a ballot-counting facility flanked by a Winn-Dixie, a Goodwill superstore and a check-cashing operation. Snipes, a retired school administrator with a doctorate in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University, announces her presence here with a massive lighted sign at the front edge of the mall building that reads “Dr. Brenda C. Snipes” in purple cursive script. Her name and academic title are everywhere at the Lauderhill offices: on the sign outside the delivery entrance, by the door in the ballot-counting-observation room, on the bright-blue backdrop used for her brief and sometimes prickly news updates.
Snipes was appointed in 2003 by then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and she has since won reelection four times despite a string of election controversies. Earlier this year, a Florida judge ruled that she broke the law by destroying ballots from a 2016 congressional election earlier than they should have and while the losing candidate was suing to inspect them. Elections she has overseen in the Democratic-leaning county, Florida’s second most populous after Miami-Dade, frequently have been plagued by long lines and slow counts. And in the current election, she’s been bashed by critics for failing to give regular updates about the vote count as required by state law and for posting conflicting numbers about the more than 700,000 total votes cast in the county.
The Florida Sun-Sentinel editorial board has called her “simply incompetent,” and Bush, who had appointed her, tweeted this week that she should be removed from office after the recount and that she was “undermining Floridians’ confidence in our electoral process.” The Bush tweet overshadowed a brief appearance by Snipes for the unveiling of the first recounted ballots Tuesday afternoon. Asked about it, Snipes — who is African American — noted that she’d been appointed by Bush after he’d suspended “the other black woman,” a reference to her scandal-plagued predecessor.
Snipes injecting race into the discussion without prompting, predictably, led to follow-ups. She seemed to walk back her observations when she added: “It’s sort of hard to rule out race, but I won’t say, ‘Oh, I’m a black woman and that’s why.’ I’m not saying that.”
She bristled when asked about Trump’s tweets, which were not supported by any evidence, suggesting that election officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties were “finding” votes for Democrats.
“I don’t have a treasure trove for going out digging on the beaches for new votes,” she said.
Outside the heavily guarded building, the smattering of protesters filled the time talking about the n-word and the definition of “cracker.”
“Why is the n-word racist when I use it? But when they use it, it isn’t racist?” asks a white woman, who says to call her Elizabeth. Elizabeth then reminisces about a childhood when she says African American kids called her a “white cracker.”
“I’ve had black people call me cracker to express their hatred toward me. It doesn’t bother me,” a man named John in a camouflage bucket hat says. “I don’t know any black people. I don’t know any white racists.”
As for cracker, John insists the word derives from the crack of whips during cattle drives. Tyler White, a young activist, pulled out his phone and found an article that said the usage derived from a British term for braggadocio.
The election drama has gone on so long that White has run out of clean clothes and is now wearing a matching golf shirt that he’d picked up at a 2-for-1 sale at Brooks Brothers with his pal Jacob Engels, operator of the conspiracy-heavy Central Florida Post. Engels has been trailing Gillum during the campaign, posting disparaging articles.
There’s not much to see outside the vote-counting building, so a few of the protesters occupy themselves by live-streaming videos to their social media pages. Kellett, the disabled veteran, interrupts his walk-and-talk video when he spots a heavyset sheriff’s deputy walking out to the parking lot, mopping sweat off his face with a towel slung over his shoulder. Kellett rushes over.
“If Gillum steals this election he’s going to take your sidearm and give you a tactical whistle,” Kellett says. “You know that?”
A little while later, a woman in a headscarf walks past.
“The Muslims have more access to our voting system than we do,” Rob Brooks, a 74-year-old retired merchant mariner, huffs to a fellow protester.
Brooks has been handing out copies of a film about Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter whose life unraveled after criticism of a series of stories he wrote alleging that the CIA was involved in drug trafficking. He frets about some dark conspiracy to push Trump out of office.
“The people from Mexico — all these invaders coming up — you never hear why they come,” Brooks says as several heads nod around him. “It’s a corrupt country. They’re going to do it to us. Our system is superior. We’re superior.”
To Brooks’s right, Cynthia Clemente, a retired real estate investor who has driven down from Charlotte, is holding a sign over her head that says, “Scott not Snipes.”
“In Charlotte we know how to count,” she yells. “I’m going back to Charlotte where we know how to read and write!”
The protesters’ chants go unheard inside the building, where the ballots are counted in a room far removed from the police tape and barricades. In the counting room, the workers seem intent on not making eye contact with the Republicans and Democrats who press up to the glass panes in a room filled with television cameras. A woman wearing blue gloves painstakingly picks at the fringe of frayed paper scraps dangling from the perforated edges of a stack of ballots.
One catches her attention — a ballot with an American flag sticker attached to it. She hands it to a man with a ponytail, who picks at the sticker for a few moments before giving up. He tosses the ballot into a plastic U.S. Postal Service bin.
Behind them, other workers lean into 12 chunky, gunmetal gray sorting machines, stacking and straightening piles of ballots before feeding them through the contraptions. Dozens of long, orange extension cords dangle from the ceiling.
On the other side of the glass, a woman in purple running shoes walks up to one of the official observers. No, she says, she hasn’t been trained. She’ll have to get a tutorial on the spot. Then comes a quiz.
“If a ballot falls on the floor what do you do?” a tall, fastidious official observer asks her.
“I record it,” she responds. “That’s it. I don’t speak to anybody.”
“That’s right!” he says.
A few minutes later, she’s inside the counting room, tilted forward in her chair. Watching. A newly christened cog in the democratic process.
Her colleagues look on from a distance. One of them is chattering about someone who went on a rampage with a car in the Midwest: “He’s probably headed to Florida.”
Amy Gardner and Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.