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How Brenda Snipes and other black election workers got falsely targeted by Trump

“What you see Trump and Rick Scott and other Republicans doing here is counting on the power of racism to serve as fact," said an Emory University professor.
Image: Brenda Snipes
Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, right, shows a ballot box that was found in a rental car after the elections and turned out to only contain election day supplies, as election employees sort ballots and prepare to count them on Nov. 12, 2018, in Lauderhill, Florida.Wilfredo Lee / AP

Most weeks the Broward County Elections Office, nestled in the Lauderhill Mall just off US 441 in Lauderhill, Florida, isn’t the kind of place that draws a crowd.

But on Election Day earlier this month, as Bob Henry Sr. stood in the parking lot closest to the county office, what he saw looked like something just short of a mob. The parking lot had become a locus for the frustrated, the distrustful, the accusatory, and the truly angry. “Lock her up,” seemed to have become the day’s favored refrain.

The “her” in question was Broward County Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes.

“Look, I’m no angel, so I had to go on and get away from there,” said Henry, publisher and columnist at the Westside Gazette, which describes itself as Broward County’s “Oldest and Largest African American Owned and Operated Newspaper.”

“Those people were angry because they seemed to have read from the same script, the one coming from Trump’s Twitter feed and [Florida Gov. Rick] Scott’s mouth, folks without so much as one bit of evidence of any kind of crime,” he said. (President Donald Trump called Snipes a “disaster” and urged her ouster.)

This week, after nearly 15 years in office, Snipes announced that she will step down from her post as Broward County Elections Supervisor on Jan. 4. Snipes, an election administrator with a problem track record long before the 2018 midterms, is said to have been deeply troubled by descriptions of her and her staff as something far worse than slow-moving or inattentive to the details key to operating a smooth election. Since Election Day, Trump and other Republicans have described Snipes and her work in ways that have left her the embodiment of the rigged and corrupt American election process about which Trump often warns his supporters.

The narrative often coming from Trump’s public statements paints election administrators like Snipes and poll workers as un-American, and U.S. elections in general as a coming together of crooks and nincompoops.

“What is going on, all these many unfortunate days after Election Day, is the counting of provisional absentee and mail-in ballots and those cast on Election Day, which by law are all supposed to be counted,” said Carol Anderson, during the recount. Anderson is a professor of African-American Studies at Emory University and author of the book “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy.” “What you see Trump and Rick Scott and other Republicans doing here is counting on the power of racism to serve as fact. Racism serves to erase actual fact and to pollute reality.”

Henry observed outside the Elections Office in Broward County a sign that read: “When Snipes counts votes, votes don’t count.” Another read; “Snipes creates fake ballots and destroys real ballots. Prison.” In his column for the Westside Gazette, Henry described Trump's role in recasting Snipes, a woman he first met almost 20 years ago when Snipes was overseeing 16 schools for an area school district, as a silver-haired criminal.

After the midterms, claims of actual election-related crime in Broward County came quickly. On Nov. 8, a little over 48 hours after polling sites closed, Trump tweeted about a “corruption scandal.”

Trump continued to tweet about election officials in Florida and Georgia “finding votes," suggesting that the “found ballots” contributed to narrowing Scott’s lead in the Senate race and one that dubbed this process the “Broward Effect.” He thanked Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for “helping to expose...potential...Election Theft” in Broward and Palm Beach Counties.”

And finally, he sent a tweet claiming “large numbers of new ballots” had “showed up out of nowhere,” and others were “missing or forged” preceded one with a direct reference to the “characters running Palm Beach and Broward County,” being unable to “‘find’ enough votes” to presumably change the election outcome.

He also predictably brought it back to the 2016 election, making an unsubstantiated claim that Broward County election officials had tried to rob him of his 2016 victory in that jurisdiction. (Trump won Broward County by an 11-point margin.)

Trump has simply borrowed from a playbook dating back to the period just after the Civil War, Anderson said, referring to a time when black voter involvement in elections began to be described as inherently likely to produce fraudulent outcomes. White Democrats, mostly in the South, often described black Americans as ill-suited to participate in democracy.

“I think we can all see that some things are not going well, did not go well. But President Trump’s assertions are not grounded in reality."

It's a set of tactics and ideas that have been renewed with gusto. Since 2000, Republicans have embraced the same notions, claiming that voter ID and other measures which tend to restrict minority voter access must be in place to conduct secure elections.

“There are definitely problems in Broward County,” said Barry Burden, a professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. “I think we can all see that some things are not going well, did not go well. But President Trump’s assertions are not grounded in reality. He does not seem to understand how elections work and I think his criticism of election officials are over the top. They are not based in any real evidence or fact.”

Florida election law allows certain types of ballots to be counted after Election Day. This includes votes cast by military personnel serving abroad, provisional ballots and others, Burden said.

Trump told The Daily Caller in a Wednesday interview that poll workers may also be facilitating Republican election losses by simply failing to notice repeat voters.

“The Republicans don’t win and that’s because of potentially illegal votes,” Trump said. “When people get in line that have absolutely no right to vote and they go around in circles. Sometimes they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again. Nobody takes anything. It’s really a disgrace what’s going on.”

Here are the known facts: Snipes, a Democrat appointed to office in 2003 by then Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, won the support of Broward County voters in 2004. Area voters continued to re-elect her, most recently in 2016. On Election Day this month, the county’s budget put her in charge of a 74-person staff and a slate of Election Day workers.

Snipes predicted that 2018 Midterms turnout would be high — about 60 percent of Broward’s electorate. And, she asked for and received about $18.93 million in county funding for elections that will be conducted during fiscal year 2019. That represents a 2 percent budget increase over the previous year, one of the smaller among Broward’s major departments.

Snipes and her staff have acknowledged a series of errors before and after the midterm election. That list includes long polling-site lines in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2012 and 2016; leaving a medical marijuana ballot initiative off of some voter forms and releasing early vote totals before the polls closed in 2016. The Miami Herald reported that Snipes blamed those errors on vendors hired to perform election-related tasks.

Snipes snafus also include a congressional race in which some tallied ballots were destroyed before state law allows. After the election, Snipes and her team took days to count early and absentee ballots, failed to provide the public with tallies of the number and types of ballots which remained to be counted, appeared to misplace some voter forms and mixed about two dozen invalid forms in with ballots to be tallied. Finally, Broward County missed a recount deadline by two minutes.

She knows, as I know, that people have literally bled and died for the vote.”

Snipes, like her pastor, the Rev. Dr. Marcus Desmond of New Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, hails from Alabama, home of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of a 1965 clash during which state officials beat and seriously injured African-Americans marching for voting rights so severely it is known as "Bloody Sunday." For someone like Snipes, Desmond said, that experience is close, almost intimately understood. Voting is almost sacred.

“I am not, by any means saying that Dr. Snipes is perfect, a human being without failure or flaw,” said Desmond. “But what I have heard said about her is far from the person that I know. And the things that I’m hearing said, the extreme accusations do not strike me as the things she would ever do. I would think that she might be the least likely person to willfully manipulate or intentionally pollute the process. She knows, as I know, that people have literally bled and died for the vote.”

To Anderson, Snipes and other people who work in the nation's election system appear to have become two of the things that Trump loves most, a foil and a useful distraction.

“What Snipes is to Trump is this ‘character,’ a black woman in charge of overseeing an election in which there have clearly been some problems,” Anderson said. “But you will notice he's not point[ed] to anything specific and perhaps legitimate.”