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After Trump and Scott cry ‘fraud,’ critics pounce on Broward County’s troubled election history

Citing "rampant fraud," Gov. Rick Scott (R) said he plans to sue Florida election officials as his Senate race nears a recount. (Video: Reuters)
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With his margin of victory in Florida’s Senate race narrowing, Gov. Rick Scott phoned in the lawyers. Addressing reporters in Tallahassee on Thursday night, Scott (R) declared that he was suing to stop Democrats from stealing what he said was his midterm victory over incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. His ire in particular zeroed in on two South Florida counties.

“Every Floridian should be concerned there may be rampant fraud happening in Palm Beach and Broward counties,” Scott said. “I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the people of Florida.”

Back in Washington, President Trump echoed the allegation. “Law Enforcement is looking into another big corruption scandal having to do with Election Fraud in #Broward and Palm Beach. Florida voted for Rick Scott!” the president blasted out on Twitter.

Late Friday morning, as he was leaving the White House for a trip to Paris to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended of World War I, Trump told reporters that Broward County and the woman in charge of elections there have “a horrible history.” He went on: “And all of a sudden they’re finding votes out of nowhere. Rick Scott ... won by a comfortable margin, but every couple of hours it does down a little bit.... Bad things have gone on in Broward County, really bad things.”

Republicans have piled on about alleged ballot-box shenanigans and dirty tricks, layering the aftermath of a contentious election with new drama.

But the whole situation in Florida also feels like a repeat of past political upheaval. That’s thanks to Broward County.

For decades, the county has regularly been a hot zone for election-night chaos in both statewide and national races, including the infamous 2000 presidential election. Years of problems have only slapped additional coats of paint on the county’s sordid reputation as a black hole for ballots. Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes, the target of Scott’s legal action, has been accused in recent years of illegally destroying ballots and mismanagement.

As The Washington Post reported Thursday, Florida election officials have until Saturday to tally votes to determine whether both the Senate and gubernatorial races will head to a recount. But Snipes on Thursday fueled the latest Broward controversy — and conspiracy theories — when she failed to explain how long her office’s count would take.

“The #Broward Elections Supervisor has been pulling stunts like this for years and we’re not going to let her get away with it,” GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted Thursday. “#Broward election supervisors ongoing violation of #Florida law requiring timely reporting isn’t just annoying incompetence,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Twitter. “It has opened the door for lawyers to come here & try to steal a seat in the U.S. Senate & Florida Cabinet.”

Snipes has yet to comment on Scott’s legal threats.

But the criticism also is politically tinged. Broward is Florida’s biggest Democratic stronghold, meaning the county is a convenient punching bag for Florida’s GOP as well as outsider candidates hoping to take on the mainstream Democratic Party. And with the country’s election process again under siege, Broward’s track record is once more of national significance.

“They are the Keystone Kops of elections,” a conservative election attorney told Politico in 2017. “It’s complete incompetence.”

Sandwiched between Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, rubbing up against the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades, Broward is 1,323 square miles of interlocking suburbs as well as the city of Fort Lauderdale. According to Snipes’s office, the county is home to approximately 593,000 registered Democrats and 252,000 registered Republicans. The balance makes Broward particularly significant in the tight, high-wire races that have come to define the state.

The grand tour of Broward’s ballot problems starts with the most controversial presidential election of recent memory. After the close finish between George W. Bush and Al Gore, reports emerged of partially punched paper ballots that may have been improperly disqualified — known forevermore as “hanging chads.” The Gore campaign pushed for manual recounts in four Florida counties — Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Volusia and Broward.

For 36 days after the election, more than 45 lawsuits shuttled through state and federal courts over the election results. The uncertainty ended when the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore halted a recount of ballots, including Broward’s, preserving Bush’s slim win.

Problems continued to plague Broward. In 2001, Miriam Oliphant won a race for the county’s elections supervisor. According to a report in City Link, her tenure was marked by cronyism and excessive spending. Because of poor planning, a September 2002 primary started with 25 Broward precincts opening late. Workers failed to show. Machines broke. Hundreds of uncounted ballots were later discovered.

A year later during municipal elections, “more mail-in ballots — 17,245 — were returned as undeliverable than were cast” because of Oliphant’s mismanagement of her office, City Link reported. That same month, then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R) removed Oliphant from office and appointed Snipes to the position.

But Broward’s troubles continued.

As The Washington Post reported going into the 2004 presidential election, Florida was once again expected to be a decisive swing state. As Election Day approached, Snipes blamed the U.S. Postal Service for losing 58,000 absentee ballots, then later announced that only 6,000 ballots had disappeared. Postal officials claimed they had done nothing wrong. Then, Snipes’s office dropped 2,400 absentee ballots off at the post office on a Saturday before the election, after mail carriers were already gone for the day.

“There’s no way in hell those people are going to get their ballots in a timely fashion,” a Postal Service spokesman told The Post, laying blame on Broward. “They should get their act together over there.”

The disorganization meant potential absentee Broward voters — a critical constituency for Democratic candidate John F. Kerry — were out of luck. “I feel like I live in a Third World country,” one frustrated Broward voter told The Post.

Recent years have seen more blunders as well as legal action targeting the county.

In 2016, Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz faced a primary challenge by a Bernie Sanders-backed candidate named Tim Canova in Florida’s 23rd District. Canova sued Broward elections officials and asked to inspect the physical ballots in the race. As Politico reported, Snipes’s office destroyed the physical originals while saving digital copies as the lawsuit was pending — a violation of a federal statute requiring congressional ballots be saved for 22 months after an election.

Snipes later called the decision a mistake. As a result, the state announced it would be monitoring Broward’s 2018 elections.

Additional lawsuits stemming from 2016 were also launched against the office. A number of absentee ballots sent out that cycle from Broward were missing a medical marijuana amendment. Attorneys from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws sued the county. According to the Miami Herald, a judge eventually ruled in favor of Broward.

The Republican Party also sued Broward over how the county opened absentee ballots after observing officials at work in 2016. In August, a judge ruled that Broward officials could no longer open the ballots in secret or before a three-member board decided on their validity, Politico reported.

“I’ve lost much faith and confidence in the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office to conduct a fair election,” Canova, now a vocal critic of the county after also failing in a 2018 third-party bid for Wasserman Schultz’s seat, told a group of voters in September. “It’s undermined my confidence in the election system generally around this country.”

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