WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) - The Republican Party of Florida has followed through on threats to take legal action over an election supervisor's handling of mail-in ballots in a Democrat-dominated county in South Florida.
The Republican Party of Florida sued Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes in circuit court, seeking an injunction to stop her alleged practice of prematurely opening up mail-in ballots.
The lawsuit claims that during the November general election, Snipes violated a Florida statute by authorizing her staff to begin opening and tabulating vote-by-mail ballots before the ballots were approved by the Broward County Canvassing Board.
The Florida Republican Party's chairman sent a Nov. 2 letter to Snipes advising her of the alleged violations, and in response, Snipes and the canvassing board allowed a Republican representative to monitor the county's processing of absentee ballots. A canvassing board member also agreed to be present while the county fielded the ballots.
Though the Republican Party of Florida concedes that the "corrective actions provided some transparency in Broward County's vote-by-mail balloting process," it claims Snipes has refused to change her practices, creating uncertainty as to whether the allegedly non-compliant procedures will be repeated in future elections.
Because Florida restricts citizen challenges to the validity or authenticity of an individual mail-in ballot once the ballot's mailing envelope is open, Snipes' practice of prematurely opening the envelopes interferes with Republican candidates' and voters' ability to challenge dubious absentee votes, the lawsuit argues.
Those concerns were reflected in the party's November letter to Snipes, which also criticized the county for limiting the public inspection period for absentee ballot processing to 30 minutes.
The lawsuit, filed Jan. 13 but released to the public this week, seeks declaratory relief, along with an injunction to ensure Snipes in future elections keeps the absentee ballots unopened until the canvassing board convenes and canvasses those votes.
Controversy remains over whether the Florida Republican Party's interpretation of the applicable statute is myopic, given that the statutory section reads: "An elector who dies after casting a vote-by-mail ballot but on or before election day shall remain listed in the registration books until the results have been certified for the election in which the ballot was cast. The supervisor shall safely keep the ballot unopened in his or her office until the county canvassing board canvasses the vote."
Under the contending interpretation, the sentence on which the Republican Party of Florida is relying -- directing Snipes to "safely keep the ballot unopened ... until the county canvassing board canvasses the vote" -- only applies to the ballots of voters who died after mailing in their votes.
The Supervisor of Elections' spokesperson told Courthouse News that as a matter of general procedure, deputized election workers are already tasked with reviewing mail-in ballot signatures on the outside of the envelopes, and comparing them with voters' signature on file to verify authenticity. If signatures don't match, the accompanying ballots are set aside for further review, according to the representative.
According to a 2005 advisory opinion issued by the Division of Elections: "The board action of approving and ordering the opening and processing of the absentee ballots requires that a majority of the members of the canvassing board be present. Once approved and ordered, the clerical work of actually opening the absentee ballots and running them through the tabulators may be done with at least one member of the canvassing board present at all times."
The Florida Republican Party's litigation comes at a time when President Donald Trump is making heavily contested, sweeping claims that voter fraud is rampant.
The lawsuit does not identify any specific instances of mail-in ballot tampering.
Broward County, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, the three most populous counties in the state, have voted resoundingly Democratic in recent presidential elections, providing an electoral bulwark against Republican-leaning counties spread across Florida. Of all Florida counties, Broward had the second highest percentage of votes for Hillary Clinton, closely trailing the much smaller Gadsden County.
Snipes has maintained that her absentee ballot processing is standard practice and does not violate election law.
Her office was criticized for other ballot snafus amid the November election. A medical marijuana legalization initiative was missing from some ballots; and in a ballot section concerning an infrastructure funding measure, a misprint made the affirmative vote line -- "Yes/Si/Wi" -- appear as "Yes/Si/No."
Snipes previously prevailed in a lawsuit in which marijuana reform group NORML sought emergency corrective measures after reports emerged that the medical marijuana legalization measure was missing. The measure was ultimately approved by a wide margin.
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