Florida Election Finally Ends, but Criticism of It Does Not

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LAUDERHILL, Fla. — The Republican candidate for commissioner of agriculture in Florida conceded his loss Monday — sort of.

Matt Caldwell, a Republican, lost the election by less than 7,000 votes. He was so stung by the series of blunders by Democrats elected to run the elections offices in two South Florida counties that he confessed that he remained unconvinced of the results.

“Unfortunately, as a result of the abject failures in Broward and Palm Beach, it has become clear that we may never gain an understanding of what transpired in the hours and days after polls closed,” he said in a statement.

His announcement came the morning after the embattled elections supervisor in Broward County, Brenda C. Snipes, told Gov. Rick Scott that she would step down from her post on Jan. 4, a decision that came in the wake of multiple ballot mishaps that plagued Broward County after the Nov. 6 election.

Dr. Snipes’s resignation and Mr. Caldwell’s hesitant concession Monday highlighted the pitfalls of Florida’s fragmented election system that came painfully to light over the past week, a system made up of 67 counties with different equipment run by officials with highly varying levels of expertise — who almost all had to run for office themselves.

The embattled and weary Dr. Snipes on Monday gave her first interview since her resignation, expressing surprise at the harsh allegations against her and reflecting on a career that she said “was blown up in a spectacle.” Looking exhausted and sounding annoyed, Dr. Snipes, 75, said she always knew this election would be her last.

“I have been kind of amazed at myself: I feel calm,” said Dr. Snipes, an elected Democrat who was initially appointed to the office by then- Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003. “I don’t feel mind-boggled. I am mind-boggled by all the folks who came in here with all the commentary who didn’t know me from a bag of dirt out there. It’s a representation of the kind of climate that we live in.”

The problems in Broward County began immediately after Election Day, when her office provided fuzzy details about the number of votes cast in various categories. It then produced unexplained new votes in the days after the election — a situation that prompted Republicans to file a lawsuit demanding access to the county’s voting records, which they easily won.

Just after Election Day, a small stack of rejected ballots was inadvertently commingled with valid ones — and all were counted.

Then on Thursday, Dr. Snipes’s office failed by two minutes to meet the state’s deadline to submit results of a machine recount and blamed unfamiliarity with the state’s website for the error.

That wasn’t all: The bungled machine recount was more than 2,000 votes short. The canvassing board was forced to choose which results to use, while Dr. Snipes said the ballots that weren’t included in the recount had probably been misfiled with another stack of ballots.

If she had to do it again, Dr. Snipes said, she would find a larger facility in which to conduct the recount, because the close confines where they operated probably led to the “mishap.”

People aren’t talking about the things that went well, she said: 22 early voting sites that ran 12 hours a day for two weeks. More than 300,000 people who were accommodated for voting early, and another 200,000 by mail. She said her office also conducted supervised voting at nursing homes.

“I’m not going to say that I made major mistakes; I’m not going to say that,” she said. “A lot of things that we planned went exactly as planned.”

Still, she has been in the cross hairs of critics since almost the moment the polls closed.

In the first days after the election, an unruly crowd gathered in the parking lot of the elections office to protest, marching with signs featuring pictures of Dr. Snipes and chanting, “Lock her up.” The message was clear: Many Republicans were convinced that Snipes was subverting the ballot count to swing the election for Democrats in a county in which they hold a strong edge in voter registration.

Mr. Scott, who is now the state’s Republican senator-elect, asked the state’s Department of Law Enforcement to investigate potential wrongdoing in Dr. Snipes’s office.

“They are of accusing me of everything,” she said. “It’s really discouraging that people would feel that they have to go out and make comments like that.”

The man who first recommended Dr. Snipes to Mr. Bush expressed sympathy.

“There were big bumps and as a leader, she had to take responsibility for what happened. She did that, but I am sure she was also thinking, ‘This is not worth it,’” said Dorsey Miller, once one of Florida’s most well-known African-American Republicans. “She is a strong lady, but I am sure she needed some peace.”

Dr. Snipes has been easily re-elected in the years since her initial appointment. About 60 percent of local elections officials in the United States have to run for their posts, though more states are moving toward the use of bipartisan boards to organize elections in order to avoid the appearance of bias, experts said.

Florida’s elections supervisors are nearly all elected, a situation that creates the possibility that elections in major metropolitan areas are overseen by politicians with no expertise in the mechanics of running elections.

“The way not to do it is the way the way Florida does it,” said Daniel P. Tokaji, an expert on elections law at Ohio State University’s law school. “There is an inherent conflict of interest.” In Dr. Snipes’s case, he said, “Whether or not she was actually biased, people who are subject to re-election have an incentive to do right by their party.”

The only Florida county that does not elect its supervisor is also the state’s largest — Miami-Dade, which was widely praised on Election Day and during the recount for running a smooth operation in spite of having about 100,000 more ballots to process than did Broward County.

The supervisor there, Christina White, is a career public servant with no party affiliation who was appointed by the county mayor.

“She’s free of the politics, the innuendo and the trappings that come at times with this business,” Esteban Bovo, chairman of the County Commission, a Republican in a nonpartisan post, noted in a news conference last week.

Despite that, on Nov. 6, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that will require all election supervisors, including the one in Miami-Dade, to be elected beginning in 2024.

The problem with elected elections officials is not just an appearance of possible bias, it is also that “bad actors” have ample opportunity to pull off partisan shenanigans, said Frances R. Hill, an elections expert at the University of Miami School of Law.

Possible meddling includes the purging of voter rolls and closing polling places to curb participation in certain communities, she said.

Research at the University of Wisconsin has shown that appointed Republican elections officials are slightly less likely to approve provisional ballots than appointed Democratic officials, said Charles Stewart III, an elections expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Cathy Cox, a former secretary of state of Georgia, said her state now required elections officials to pass a competency test, and those who are not up on the latest technology sometimes fail. She said bipartisan boards or commissions were created in recent years in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Delaware.

In Virginia, a legislative audit criticized its elections agency for being prone to political influence with a high number of appointees, she said.

In Florida, this blistering midterm election recount exposed the dangers of having a county-by-county system that allowed such important things as ballot design and vote-counting equipment to be determined on a county-by-county basis. That meant some counties could pull off the recount with ease, and others simply could not.

In Broward County, Democrats said the design of ballots possibly cost votes to the Democratic Senate incumbent, Bill Nelson, because the race was listed in a corner of the ballot, under the instructions.

Dr. Snipes, for her part, said she supported Florida’s method of choosing its local elections supervisors at the polls: It gives voters a voice, she said.

She said she hoped that the Broward County voters who elected her remember her as the “same person” they chose in four straight elections.

“Running an election,” she said, “is a big job.”

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