4
Brenda Snipes Became a National Curiosity After a Puzzling Midterm Election
Illustration by Pete Ryan / peterthomasryan.com

Brenda Snipes Became a National Curiosity After a Puzzling Midterm Election

On a Saturday morning in November 2003, Dorsey Miller called his old friend Brenda Snipes and asked if he could drop by. Miller, an adviser to then-Gov. Jeb Bush, didn't explain his motivations over the phone. He knew he'd have a better chance closing the deal in person.

Expecting just a 15-minute conversation, Miller left his keys in the ignition and a friend in the passenger seat when he arrived at Snipes' ranch-style house in Lauderdale Lakes. Miller thought Snipes, a retired principal and school district administrator, would be the perfect replacement for elections supervisor Miriam Oliphant, who was days away from being ousted by Bush for mismanagement and incompetence. But Snipes wasn't so sure.

Continue Reading

At 60 years old, she was five months retired after nearly four decades in public education. She and her husband Walter, a retired adult educator, weren't convinced the timing was right for her to jump back into the workforce. But Miller, who had worked with Snipes at the Broward school district, kept pushing.

"I thought she had what it took and could also provide some service to our community," Miller says. "She's a very friendly person, very knowledgeable. She adapts easily... I knew she had the temperament to be in that position."

After three hours of resisting Miller's hardest sell, Snipes finally gave him a reluctant maybe.

"If I consider it," she said, "I will only complete Miriam's tenure."

Miller stopped her right there.

"Let me and Walter be the only two to ever hear that," he told her. "You might try it, and you might like it."

So began Snipes' second career as supervisor of elections in Florida's second most populated county, which today has more than 1.1 million registered voters. At the end of Oliphant's term in 2004, Snipes did as Miller had predicted and campaigned to keep her job. She won that election and three more, garnering over 65 percent of the vote each time.

Despite her popularity with voters, Snipes presided over several blunders during her tenure, including improperly destroying old ballots, posting election results too early, and printing ballots with missing amendments and candidates. But until the 2018 midterms, none was big enough to make national news.

With three races — governor, U.S. senator, and agricultural commissioner — too close to call on election night, all eyes were on Broward, and the elections office seemed to implode. The county took four days to finish counting votes and then misplaced more than 2,000 ballots during the recount. Thousands of voters skipped over the Senate race, most likely because of the poorly designed ballot. Finally, after tight margins in the three races triggered a machine recount, Snipes' office missed the state's reporting deadline by two minutes.

In the days after the election, those mistakes drove the narrative about Snipes and her qualifications as supervisor.

In an interview with the right-wing Daily Caller, President Donald Trump called her "a disaster."

On Fox News, Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz called her "either too stupid or too corrupt to be running elections."

On Twitter, elections expert Rick Hasen called her the "wors[t] election administrator in the entire country."

In an interview with the New York Times, Snipes called her career "blown up in a spectacle."

"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," she told the paper. "It's a representation of the kind of climate that we live in."

What happened next was a whiplash-inducing series of events that called Snipes' future into question. After two weeks of facing protesters outside election headquarters and receiving death threats at her home, she resigned in mid-November. Twelve days later, Gov. Rick Scott, claiming she had "repeatedly failed in her duties," suspended her from office.

Snipes struck back with a lawsuit disputing her suspension and asking to be reinstated. Finally, this past January 18, Florida's new governor, Ron DeSantis, reversed the suspension and accepted Snipes' resignation.

Through her attorney, Snipes declined to be interviewed for this story. But at a short news conference January 24, she told reporters she was glad "to finish with my dignity and my name having been restored."

"Those are two things that cost no money, but most of us consider those of great value," Snipes added.

Though Broward's latest electoral saga is now all but over, the question remains: Was Snipes a crook, an incompetent, or just a pawn in a larger political game? More than two months after the midterms, the answer is still unclear.

Although Snipes believes her name has been cleared, the 2018 election will forever be part of her legacy. As the Florida Department of Law Enforcement continues to investigate the possibility of voter fraud, Snipes' professional reputation remains on shaky ground as she once again heads into retirement, 15 years after she first intended.

Snipes declared victory in her lawsuit against former Gov. Rick Scott at a news conference January 24.EXPAND
Snipes declared victory in her lawsuit against former Gov. Rick Scott at a news conference January 24.
Photo by Jessica Lipscomb

Although Snipes had no experience with elections when she took office in 2003, she was accustomed to playing the role of problem solver. Taking over Broward's dysfunctional elections office seemed well within her wheelhouse — she'd spent much of her career in education cleaning up messes and fixing what seemed irreparably broken.

Snipes joined Broward County Public Schools in 1964 following her graduation from Talladega College in Alabama. After starting out as a teacher at Blanche Ely High in Pompano Beach, she was pulled into almost every position the school system had to offer, including adult educator, principal, and district administrator, during her decades-long tenure.

One of her most challenging assignments came in 1996, when the district's leadership sent her into one of Broward's lowest-performing schools, Markham Elementary. Serving as co-principal alongside the incumbent principal, Johnny Duncombe, she cut students' recess, sent teachers into training, and revamped the school's curriculum. She spent most of her waking hours at Markham tutoring children in writing after school and coming in Saturday mornings to help run remedial math camps.

The work there kept her up at night too. Duncombe remembers logging onto his computer in the morning and seeing emails Snipes had sent him at 2 or 3 in the morning.

"She was a hard worker and a smart worker," Duncombe says. "I've been in Broward County as a teacher from 1972 and worked my way up through the system... There were very few in this county that worked the hours and the length of time that she did."

Her dedication paid off: By the 2000-01 school year, Snipes had helped take the school from an F grade to a C.

Snipes' reputation as a results-driven leader was what inspired Dorsey Miller to recommend her to Gov. Jeb Bush after outdated voter rolls and uncounted ballots marred the 2002 primary election in Broward. Although Snipes was a registered Democrat, Miller saw her as someone who would act fairly and in the interest of all voters, regardless of party.

"Brenda was not that political; she was almost apolitical," he says.

Beginning with her early days in office, Snipes set out to prove him right. One of her first initiatives was a voter-registration drive that sent the Broward elections team to high schools and nursing homes to recruit new voters and poll workers. By the end of Snipes' first term, the office had registered more than 25,000 students to vote.

The mission was personal for Snipes, whose father had taken her to register with the Talladega County elections office as soon as she was old enough to vote. Snipes reached voting age in the middle of the civil rights movement in Alabama, where 600 people were tear-gassed and assaulted while marching for voting rights in Selma in 1965. Her pastor, an Alabama native serving at New Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, says that experience intimately shaped her time as supervisor of elections.

"She knows, as I know, that people have literally bled and died for the vote," Rev. Marcus Davidson told NBC News in a recent interview.

The office Snipes inherited came with far more visibility than any she'd held in education. She learned quickly that supervisor of elections is a demanding, mostly thankless job: Smooth elections go unnoticed, but mistakes of any size are costly.

No one knew this better than Snipes' predecessor, Miriam Oliphant, a community activist and rising Democratic star who was elected to the position in 2000 and removed from office only three years later.

"These offices are administratively run but politically overseen," Oliphant says today.

Oliphant replaced outgoing elections supervisor Jane Carroll, a Republican bureaucrat who was retiring after 31 years on the job. Although Carroll's tenure was largely unblemished, her final year in office was marked by the chaotic 2000 presidential election, in which Broward's "hanging chads" helped trigger a statewide recount. While the county was still counting ballots, Carroll took a four-day vacation to North Carolina and then abruptly resigned from the canvassing board during the hand recount so she could fly to California for Thanksgiving.

At the time, Oliphant criticized Carroll and vowed to reform the elections office. But Oliphant's tenure as supervisor ended up being far more scrutinized than her predecessor's. In the September 2002 primary election, multiple precincts opened late, dozens of poll workers were no-shows, and 18 touch-screen voting machines worth $54,000 were misplaced. An audit later that year found that Oliphant had blown her budget by more than $900,000, misspent a $600,000 state grant, and given jobs and contracts to friends and political allies.

Among those hires, according to news reports from the time, were an unemployed computer specialist from Oliphant's condo building who was tapped as her deputy supervisor, and an often-drunk homeless man who was brought on as a mailroom clerk. Investigators later discovered that the clerk, Glen Davis, had ignored 268 absentee ballots in a stash of unopened mail, preventing them from being tabulated in the 2002 primary.

Those mistakes and others triggered at least ten lawsuits against Oliphant, who began facing calls to resign. A telephone poll by the Miami Herald found that 84 percent of voters said they would not reelect her. A critical report by Governor Bush's secretary of state, Glenda Hood, was the final nail in the coffin; in November 2003, Bush suspended Oliphant and appointed Snipes as her replacement.

Snipes came into her new role with a reputation for defusing tension and communicating diplomatically, but her lack of elections experience presented a problem early on. In 2004, tens of thousands of mail-in ballots requested by voters never arrived, creating a last-minute panic. The next year, Snipes was fined by the state for failing to report some of her campaign contributions. A week after the 2012 election, nearly 1,000 uncounted ballots were discovered in Broward, and in 2016, Snipes' office was sued after an amendment seeking to legalize medical marijuana was erroneously missing from some ballots.

One of the most serious charges lobbed at Snipes came from Nova Southeastern law professor Tim Canova, who lost the 2016 Democratic congressional primary to incumbent Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Canova sued in 2017 for access to the primary ballots, alleging on Twitter that the results might have been manipulated even though he had lost by more than 6,000 votes.

In May 2018, Broward Circuit Judge Raag Singhal ruled that Snipes' office had improperly discarded the ballots in September 2017, because elections offices are required to retain paper ballots from federal elections for at least 22 months. Although she was found to have acted unlawfully, Snipes was not criminally charged.

Despite having the authority to remove Snipes, Governor Scott didn't get involved until his Senate victory became threatened during the 2018 recount. At a news conference on the steps of the Florida Governor's Mansion two days after the 2018 election, he accused Snipes' office of "rampant fraud" and producing "more and more ballots out of nowhere," without citing any evidence.

In an interview on Fox News Sunday that weekend, host Chris Wallace asked Scott why he hadn't intervened after the ballot-destruction incident the previous year.

"The question I have for you is, as governor, you could have suspended her at some point and named a replacement. Why didn't you?" Wallace wondered.

Scott dodged the question.

"What I'm focused on now is, we've gone through an election; let's get this election finished," the governor answered. "That's what I'm focused on now."

To date, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is still investigating the allegations of criminal wrongdoing in Broward County.

"I can confirm that FDLE has an active investigation with issues around the state, in conjunction with the statewide prosecutor and AG's Office," spokeswoman Jessica Cary wrote in an email to New Times. "We cannot provide any other details at this time."

Brenda Snipes and her old friend Dorsey Miller talk often, but they did not discuss her decision to step down in mid-November.

Her resignation letter, sent to Governor Scott two days shy of her 15th work anniversary, was brief, containing only two paragraphs.

"Although I have enjoyed this work tremendously over these many election cycles, both large and small, I am ready to pass the torch," she wrote.

Perhaps Snipes already knew what she would hear if she confided in Miller, who had persuaded her into office all those years ago.

"If I had been here and we had talked, my advice would have been not to resign," Miller says. "I think she was just in a moment and said, 'To hell with it. I'll resign and that'll be it.'"

But her resignation was not the tidy ending she seemed to hope for. Two weeks later, Scott issued an executive order suspending Snipes and appointing his former lawyer, Pete Antonacci, as her replacement. Concerned about her pension, Snipes immediately rescinded her resignation.

"We will be fighting this," Snipes' attorney, Burnadette Norris-Weeks, told reporters at a December 1 news conference. "We believe the supervisor is being held to a standard that no other supervisor has been held to."

Many of Snipes' supporters in Broward County agree with Norris-Weeks. Some believe race or partisan politics was to blame for her suspension. Others say it's unfair to hold the state's second-largest county to the same standards as those with smaller, more manageable voter rolls.

"There was no malfeasance. She didn't do anything illegal in terms of how she operated the office," says Commissioner Dale Holness, who chairs the group Broward Black Elected Officials. "To pick on her doesn't make sense."

In his eight years as a county commissioner, Holness says he found Snipes to be someone who is "honest, forthright, and operates at the highest level of integrity." He praises her for her voter outreach initiatives and ability to operate within her budget.

"It was arbitrary and, in my mind, very wrong for her to be taken down," he says. "What's the reason for [Scott] to capriciously just push her out? Is it politics? Is it race?"

Brian Johnson, the vice mayor of West Park and another member of Broward Black Elected Officials, says he's confident racial bias was a factor in Snipes' suspension.

"Her blackness — no one could intelligently take it off the table," he says.

Johnson points to mistakes by other elections supervisors, such as Bay County's Mark Andersen, who accepted 158 ballots via fax and email from voters in the hurricane-ravaged Panama City area. The Florida Department of State had explicitly warned counties in the Panhandle not to do so.

"In the face of similar issues or even worse issues — faxing in votes, for example — around the state... you just don't have the same reaction," Johnson says.

Looking back at the history of the Broward County elections office, Johnson believes Jane Carroll had political cover because she is white and Republican. Despite her frequent vacations — including two in the middle of the historic 2000 recount — Carroll retired quietly and without discipline, with almost no personal criticism from the public.

"If you ask anybody about elections in Florida... I bet you my next mortgage payment they're gonna reference hanging chads," Johnson says. "But I bet you my next mortgage payment no one could tell you who the supervisor of elections was at that time."

Oliphant, who was the first black elections supervisor in Broward County — and the first to be suspended from office — also believes she and Snipes were treated more harshly because of their race.

"She was sabotaged, I was sabotaged, and Jane Carroll walked away," Oliphant says. "She walked away from her job, and she was never held accountable, and it's because she is a white woman."

Now retired and living in North Carolina, Carroll says she has not closely followed the duel between Scott and Snipes in Florida. But she dismisses the idea that racial bias is to blame for what happened to her two successors.

"Race now has become almost second to the Me Too movement. Everything that happens is blamed on either sexual harassment or racial prejudice or anti-LG-whatever-it-is," Carroll says. "I don't think the removal of Brenda Snipes had to do with race. I think it had to do with all the terrible publicity after the election."

Although the lawsuit Snipes filed against Scott and Senate President Bill Galvano asked for her reinstatement, Governor DeSantis' decision to accept her resignation led U.S. District Judge Mark Walker to dismiss the case. But Snipes did get a somewhat favorable opinion from Walker in the meantime. On January 9, the Tallahassee judge agreed with Snipes that Scott had "vilified her" and effectively terminated her without due process.

In his remarks, Walker also gave credence to the idea that discrimination was at play. At the end of a court hearing where lawyers for Scott and Snipes argued about the case, Walker asked rhetorically if any elections supervisors had been suspended for accepting votes by fax.

"No, your honor," Snipes' attorney, Norris-Weeks, answered, according to the News Service of Florida.

"Do you know the gender or race of any of the right-leaning supervisors of elections in the Panhandle?" the judge asked.

Norris-Weeks responded simply that they were all white males.

At her latest news conference, held at the Broward County Governmental Center January 24, Snipes was evasive when asked if she believed race was a factor in her suspension by Scott.

"You know what? I haven't focused on that," she said.

With a new supervisor in office, Broward County now faces its next election March 12. It will be the first test for Antonacci, a white male Republican who is in many ways Snipes' opposite.

As for Snipes, she plans to finally retire with two pensions totaling more than $130,000 annually. "I've been in Broward County and worked in Broward County for many, many, many years," she told reporters. "I'm just gonna be a person of leisure for a while."

Freelancer Morgan Dobbins contributed to this story.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send: