Skip to main content

Democracy Under Attack as Florida Election Chief Destroys Paper Ballots in Congressional Race

Ralph Lopez majored in economics and political science at Yale University. He has been published in the Boston Globe and the Baltimore Sun.

Broward County, Florida Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes

Broward County, Florida Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes

Florida Ballots Destroyed

After the South Florida Sun-Sentinel mocked a candidate's claims of internal election fraud as "conspiracy theories," suddenly the newspaper has fallen silent. The ballots in question seem to have been destroyed.

The race for the Florida 23rd Congressional District pitted maverick Democratic primary challenger Tim Canova against entrenched incumbent Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Hillary Clinton ally, while Canova was inspired to run by Bernie Sanders. When Canova demanded a hand count of the paper ballots in a lawsuit, Broward County Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes had to admit that she had, illegally, against federal law, destroyed the ballots.

The action, declared "illegal and unlawful" in a summary judgment granted by a Florida court to Canova, has brought no repercussions to date from law enforcement.

Canova lost his 2016 primary race against Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Democratic incumbent for the Florida 23rd by thirteen percent. Nevertheless, after statisticians, including a former president of the American Statistical Association, brought unusual voting patterns to Canova's attention, Canova requested a hand recount of the paper ballots. It was then that Broward County officials were forced to admit that the paper ballots no longer existed, because they had been destroyed, under orders from Snipes.

Wasserman-Schultz was declared the victory in the Florida Democratic primary, 56% to 43%.

Is It Illegal to Destroy Paper Ballots?

Federal law requires that paper ballots in all congressional races be preserved for at least 22 months after the election.

Federal law 52 USC 20701 states:

"Every officer of election shall retain and preserve, for a period of twenty-two months from the date of any general, special, or primary election of which candidates for the office of President, Vice President, presidential elector, Member of the Senate, Member of the House of Representatives...all records and papers...requisite to voting in such election..."

The federal law stipulates that "Any officer of election...who willfully fails to comply" shall be fined "not more than $1,000," and can be imprisoned "for up to one year," or both.

The Florida court, presided over by Circuit Court Judge Raag Sighal, agreed that the law was broken.

The criminal action sets a precedent in open view in the now hotly contested area of election hacking. Although the American media has delivered a non-stop barrage of coverage and analysis of allegations of Russian nefariousness in US elections, the facts in the case against the Florida official are uncontested.

Canova v. Snipes

The election official does not dispute that she destroyed the ballots, with Judge Sighal finding her at fault in the lawsuit Canova v. Snipes. The audacity of the election supervisor's destruction of the ballots, and the impunity with which it has been conducted in a high profile race, in an important swing-state county, could call into question the legitimacy of the entire US Congress.

In Canova v. Snipes, Broward County Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes admitted to the facts in the civil lawsuit brought against her by congressional challenger Canova. Canova, a Florida law school professor, entered the 2016 Democratic primary against incumbent congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the former chairwoman of the DNC, until she was forced to resign by leaked emails which showed her favoritism and commitment to the nomination of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries.

The Florida court's granting of summary judgment to Canova, essentially agreeing that the destruction of the ballots was illegal, has brought no further deterrent to such actions by law enforcement authorities.

Who Really Won: Canova or Wasserman-Schultz?

With the summary judgement, Canova essentially scored no more than a moral victory with no real deterrent to similar future behavior on the part of Snipes or any other election official in the country. The court ordered the award of attorneys fees and expenses to Canova, which in any event will be paid by Broward County taxpayers.

Alarmed citizens concerned with the past, present, and future integrity of elections across the US have begun circulating petitions urging law enforcement authorities to enforce the law against Snipes.

In the past year, election integrity activists have been working to force election authorities to post the digital images of paper ballots generated by most US paper ballot vote-counting machines, in an effort to make US elections publicly verifiable. But, Canova noted, the images are of little use for verifying vote counts without the original paper ballots to match them to.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.