Banana Republic

America downscales

So it's official. Ellen Brodsky, Broward County's most uncompromising voting rights activist and independent candidate for the county's top elections post, has stepped on Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes' last nerve. In her unrelenting drive to make sure elections officials abide by every wrinkle of every statute of Florida elections law, Brodsky has been declared a primo "disruptive person," culminating in her arrest for trespassing, all choreographed by Snipes and her deputy, Fred Bellis.

There have been disputes in the past, but this time, county officials were "ready to go with everything they had," as Brodsky puts it.

When, on November 13, Brodsky and a friend appeared at the entrance to the county's Lauderhill warehouse, where the canvassing board meets to address issues relating to provisional ballots, they were blocked by police and security guards.

Bellis came outside and told Brodsky that she had been barred after creating a "disruption" during an earlier meeting. Then he directed sheriff's deputies to arrest her, though she and her friend, Maida Genser, had not entered the building.

"I was just trying to establish whether the board was in session," Brodsky says.

Still, she found herself handcuffed in the back seat of a police car. Genser taped the procedure with a small videocamera.

It was the beginning of a 16-hour ordeal for Brodsky, who was booked at the central jail and confined in a cell until 5:30 a.m. the next day, despite the fact that her son had posted the required $25 bail the evening before.

Brodsky, 57, a New York-born graphic artist, has been an impassioned voting rights advocate since 2002, when she worked as a clerk at a polling place and found what she says were disturbing irregularities (electronic voting machines in her Coconut Creek precinct that spit out 5 percent more votes than were actually cast). "I thought there would be some sort of investigation," Brodsky says, "but the people at the Supervisor of Elections office were overjoyed that it was so close."

Last summer, Brodsky decided to follow her passion and go head-to-head with Snipes, declaring herself an independent candidate for the office. The supervisor is a high-profile figure around town, a Democrat who was originally appointed to the job by Gov. Jeb Bush, and an imposing opponent. In the August primary, she got more votes than any other candidate. Indeed, Brodsky lost decisively on November 4. But with 18 percent of the vote, Brodsky still drew more than 100,000 votes — an impressive total for an unfunded independent candidate facing a major-party incumbent.

Because of her sometimes-brusque demeanor, Brodsky has alienated county officials, who seem to break into a sweat whenever she shows up. This may have something to do with the effectiveness of Brodsky as a watchdog of the system. In 2004, she alerted the public to the embarrassing loss by either the county or the Postal Service of at least 58,000 absentee ballots. Recently, she blew the whistle on the county's odd — and possibly illegal — system of printing the party affiliation of each voter on the outside of the return envelopes for absentee ballots.

During the recent election season, Brodsky was barred from meetings, lied to by guards about whether the canvassing board was in session, and, on one occasion, grudgingly allowed to observe from a roped-off area, with security guards hovering next to her. When she complained to one of the guards that she couldn't see the proceedings, he told her she should have brought binoculars.

On November 7, she attended a canvassing board session, determined to ask some questions. Deputy Sheriff C.Y. Bell warned her that any disruption from her — including "clearing your throat" or "standing up" — would be grounds for evicting her. Still, the energized Brodsky at one point raised her hand to ask a question.

According to both Snipes and Judge Robert Lee, chairman of the canvassing board, Brodsky created a "commotion" in the audience despite repeated warnings from the sheriff's deputy. Finally, Lee says, Brodsky was asked to leave and warned that she would be arrested for trespassing if she returned. As Brodsky was forcibly led out, Snipes says (confirmed by Lee), she shouted that the county ran the election process "like a fucking banana republic."

It was Bell who arrested Brodsky a week later, reporting in her arrest report that she had "created a disturbance" in the building's entrance and that she was "screaming profanities." Both claims are belied by Genser's wobbly video, which shows a reasonable Brodsky asking a few questions about the meeting schedule.

All of this could add up to a big payout by the county in a civil suit. Brodsky's lawyer, Tanner Andrews, had already filed one complaint before the arrest. There are now additional violations of Brodsky's civil rights and her right to attend a public meeting in this state, as well as a possible assault by the burly deputy Bell, Andrews contends.

Tailpipe wouldn't say that Brodsky's "banana republic" invective (which she uttered as she was being hustled out of the meeting) constituted a truthful statement. Still, maybe the embattled activist should be cut some slack, considering the frustration she and others have experienced in trying to ensure an election count that voters can believe in. Maybe the obvious passion that Brodsky and others feel for voting rights should be rewarded by including them in a much-needed citizens advisory board. Brodsky's language, Snipes says, is "outside the lines of decency." Maybe so. But so is an election process that nobody really believes in.

Brodsky still drew more than 100,000 votes — an impressive total for an unfunded independent candidate facing a major-party incumbent..

 
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