Broward County: Inside the most controversial elections department in Florida

Reporters were on the ground before the election that now has Broward front and center.
Published Nov. 9, 2018

This story by Sarah Blaskey and Carli Teproff was originally published Nov. 2 in the Miami Herald.

Broward County's Elections Department will receive special attention from state officials this November after a series of glitches, mistakes, and one case of illegal ballot destruction has some voters wondering if they should even trust the results coming out of the elections department.

Following a court ruling in May that Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes had illegally destroyed ballots from a 2016 congressional race, the governor's office announced the Florida Department of State would send election experts to Snipes' office during this year's election "to ensure that all laws are followed" and "to observe the administration of the election."

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Snipes says the extra scrutiny is undeserved.

"I think the problems are blown out of proportion," Snipes said as she led a reporter around the elections staging facility in Lauderhill in October. "Broward is nitpicked to the bone. Other places have the same problems, different problems. It's just that they are not spotlighted like we are."

Even beyond her own reprimand for authorizing the destruction of ballots, Snipes cannot deny the department's patchy track record. In 2016, early voting results for Broward were posted a half hour before polls closed, in violation of election law. Her office was sued unsuccessfully because a constitutional amendment was missing from some mail-in ballots. The electronic system used by the county was also later found to have been targeted by Russian government hackers — although it's unclear whether that affected results and had nothing to do with the early posting.

On multiple occasions, there have been problems with printing mail ballots. And in the August primaries, Broward was the last county to post election results. The department cited reasons from unexpected recounts, delayed jump drive delivery — rumor was they were temporarily lost — to a late influx of mail-in ballots that were still being counted the next day, leaving the results of several races unclear .

"We have consistently been the bottom of the barrel getting our voting results in," Broward County Commissioner Nan Rich said at a September meeting to discuss how to prevent future delays in posting results. "I don't want to be 67th in 67 counties again in voting."

Broward has introduced various new measures to improve its increasingly antiquated system — hundreds of thousands have been spent on cybersecurity measures and new vote tabulators that decrease the risk of human error and speed up the process, for example.

"We take responsibility when something happens. I am not a person that slips something under the rug or lies about anything that did or did not happen," Snipes told the Herald.

The Herald took a look behind the curtain in one of the most contentious elections departments in the state. Reporters asked what has gone wrong in the past? What is being done to fix it? And what will it take to get Broward's votes counted and accurate results published on election night? (Spoiler: It takes thousands of volunteers, millions of dollars of equipment, and flawless planning and coordination.)

Voting-by-mail concerns

It was Oct. 2, the day 200,000 mail ballots were sent out to voters. "There is a lot of preparation that goes into the process, but we see a lot of people who vote that way," Snipes said. Voting by mail is very popular because "it is so convenient," said Snipes, who expects to get about half of those ballots back.

Machines whirred, separating ballots by ZIP codes, checking bar codes and stuffing envelopes. Three 18-wheelers waited in bays as workers rolled cart after cart of postage-ready ballots into the open truck bed. Florida Highway Patrol officers waited to escort the caravan of trucks to the Opa-locka post office, where they would be mailed.

"The system does not let people get the wrong ballots," said Mary Hall, voter services director. "There is no error. It's error free."

Weeks later, the Sun-Sentinel reported that a Broward resident received a ballot with duplicate pages, though the department said at the time it was unaware of the problem. Two years earlier, Snipes was sued because the medical marijuana question was left off some ballots. The lawsuit, brought by a group pushing the constitutional amendment, was unsuccessful.

An influx of last-minute mail-in ballots is what caused the delayed results in August, said Joe D'Alessandro, director of election planning and development. The department has since added three new high-speed scanners to process ballots on Nov. 6.

D'Alessandro said the new machines "should be able to increase our ability to process more vote by mail ballots."

Voting by mail has come under increased scrutiny since an American Civil Liberties Union of Florida report said in both the 2012 and 2016 general elections, Florida voters who cast mail ballots were 10 times more likely to have their vote not count. Furthermore, younger voters and ethnic and racial minorities were more likely to have their mail ballots rejected than other demographic groups.

The two main reasons ballots were rejected were because the voter didn't sign the ballot envelope or because the voter's signature on the envelope did not match the voter's signature on file with the county elections office, according to the report.

In practice, processing mail-in ballots is some of the most time-consuming work for Broward elections officials and volunteers. "Every signature is reviewed, compared by machine and person," Snipes said. If it doesn't match, the person is notified by mail, given a chance to appeal. The more mail-in ballots come in last minute, the more it could delay the election result tabulation. "It's important for voters to know that processing a vote by mail ballot takes a long time," Snipes said.

The ballot is considered provisional until the appeal is approved. That is not unique to Broward, which registered at a similar level to Miami-Dade for mail-in ballot rejections, according to the ACLU data.

"We follow every process that we are aware of. If you follow the rules, we are going to follow the rules," Snipes said. "If it's written in the statutes, we take it as biblical."

Election Day efficiency

On Oct. 22, Broward began 14 days of early voting at 22 sites staffed mostly by volunteers. The Sun-Sentinel reported a huge increase in turnout in Broward on the first day of early voting this year, as compared to the 2014 midterm — from 6,459 to 16,202.

Leading up to the elections, the equipment center in Lauderhill is full of activity as volunteers receive training, workers ready ballots and staffers check equipment. By Election Day on Nov. 6, the number of volunteers working will have ballooned into the thousands.

"The folks who work here are truly committed to the mission of conducting error-free elections, and I think most of the voters realize that," said Snipes. "If the voters didn't have a level of confidence in this whole process they wouldn't turn out to volunteer and come back year after year. I think there is a great deal of confidence."

Election Day begins around 5:30 a.m. for Snipes at the Broward Emergency Operations Center in Plantation where she meets her nearly 7,000 volunteers and 75 staffers who will work the polls at 577 precincts countywide, staff phone banks and drive trucks.

The department will have 1,745 precinct tabulation units at the polls, each capable of sending results via a modem, nearly 600 more than the county had in August.

The November ballot is three times as long as the one processed in August, meaning each machine will be able to tabulate about 500 ballots per hour. Snipes predicted that the department will have to process four million pieces of paper, or just under 700,000 ballots. Given the length of the ballot and the potential for unpredictable events — a countywide recount, for example — without the additional machines, the elections department would have been "challenged to be able to meet the results-reporting timelines," according to Snipes.

The new system should allow for results to be sent in more quickly than ever before, since they electronically transfer results. Snipes said, "when we had the old system we would have to wait for the jump drives to come in." That was part of the delay in August, officials said. Only time will tell if the new additions will be enough to make things run more smoothly on Tuesday.

For Snipes, Election Day typically ends around 1:30 a.m., after the canvassing board meets and all the results are tabulated. "It's a very long day," Snipes said. But if there is one thing she doesn't apologize for, it's posting results slowly.

"It is a process. It takes as much time as it takes," Snipes said. She said she's not afraid to take all night, "if it means that we are going to have it right."

Then, there are the election night flukes: unexpected and embarrassing errors like when the early voting numbers went online 30 minutes before polls closed in the 2016 August primary, contrary to Florida election law.

Although Broward Elections and Snipes personally took a lot of heat for that error, it wasn't their fault. The results were posted accidentally by a young employee of VR Systems, the outside company Broward contracts with to tally election results, according to an affidavit produced by the company after the incident.

"A staff member of ours inadvertently created a link that was a preview of the election results that were not intended to be public," VR's CEO Mindy Perkins told the Miami Herald at the time. "Because of the error, that link to the preview was made to go live. As soon as we recognized that … we started the process of fixing it."

A Tallahassee-based company, VR Systems is used extensively across Florida and other parts of the United States.

Snipes and her department continue to be blamed for the 2016 error. Snipes shrugs it off. "A lot of things are hard to debunk," Snipes said. "Sometimes I put the brakes on after I have explained something as well as I can."

Keeping the hackers out

National security officials documented Russian hackers targeting Broward and other elections departments in the run-up to the 2016 elections. The target seemed to be voter information, though there is no proof the hack was successful in affecting results.

Questions of cybersecurity took center stage in Florida again in August, when Sen. Bill Nelson claimed that Russians had "penetrated" some Florida county voter systems in the lead-up to the 2018 elections. A U.S. government official familiar with the matter confirmed the accuracy of Nelson's statement to McClatchy, the Miami Herald's parent company, and said the infiltration seemed to be "fallout" from 2016 and not a fresh attack.

In 2016, documents leaked to the Intercept documented how Russian government hackers, part of a "cyber espionage mandate specifically directed at U.S. and foreign elections," targeted elections departments in eight states that used VR Systems, including Broward.

According to the reporting by the Intercept, a spear-fishing campaign targeted more than 100 email addresses "associated with named local government organizations," likely those "involved in the management of voter registration systems."

Despite the alleged hack of VR systems, Broward still uses the company. But that's not unusual, Snipes pointed out. "VR Systems provides the databases and website for just about every county in the state," Snipes said. And the department continues to take precautions.

In July, the Broward elections office applied for $543,167 in Federal Election Security Grants to strengthen cybersecurity of election systems, and $616,010 to "upgrade election-related computer systems to address cyber vulnerabilities."

No information was provided on specific allocations, but South Florida NPR affiliate WLRN reported that part of the grant was spent on purchasing new EViDs — big black boxes that electronically store voter rolls and are used to check in voters — and updated, more secure software.

EViDs are "difficult to breach," Snipes told WLRN. "So there are a lot of things in place to help us" keep voter records secure.

Miami-Dade opted instead for iPads.

Both departments say the systems have redundancies in place to make sure when voters show up at the polls, their information will be intact.