Election 2012

Richland voting mess ‘violated law’

Legislators to probe voting machine, poll worker shortage

cleblanc@thestate.comNovember 8, 2012 

  • Machines required by law State law requires one voting machine or more per 250 voters at a precinct. Some examples reported Tuesday: Keenan Precinct, voting at Sanders Middle School. Voters said there were four machines, one used for curbside voting. Registered voters: 1,873. Machines required under the state’s formula: At least seven Ward 34, voting at Pinehurst Park. Voters said the precinct was down to two machines before a third came online. Registered voters: 1,210. Machines required under the state’s formula: At least four Dutch Fork 2, voting at Dutch Fork Middle School. Voters said there were four machines on Tuesday; there are usually 10. Registered voters: 3,001. Machines required under the state’s formula: At least 12

— Richland County election officials might have broken state election laws by having too few voting machines in place as complaints have surfaced from precinct captains that they received a lot fewer machines than usual.

The county also has been pelted with complaints from irate voters, more than in any other election in memory, a spokesman for the S.C. Election Commission said Wednesday, as politicians call for a public inquiry of what went wrong – and maybe even a new election.

Some critics called for the head of elections director Lillian McBride, who has held her $86,394 post since July 2011 when the county merged its voter registration and elections offices. Some voters waited in line up to seven hours. Some left the polls without voting. And at least 20 percent of precincts, plus absentee ballots, weren’t counted until Wednesday evening, as key races hung in the balance.

State election laws require one voting machine for every 250 registered voters or “portion thereof or as near thereto as may be practicable,” according to the language of the statute.

Voters across the county – as well as some precinct managers – said the number of machines was down from previous years, in an election where officials were expecting near-record voter turnout.

State law also requires local election officials to have one poll worker for every 250 registered voters. McBride’s office has not said how many people staffed the county’s 124 precincts Tuesday.

McBride declined The State newspaper’s requests Wednesday for interviews, citing the crunch of late vote counting that continued almost 24 hours after polls closed.

But the newspaper’s analysis of the latest registration data provided Wednesday by McBride’s Elections & Voter Registration office shows about 245,000 registered voters.

That means county election officials should have put as many as 982 machines into precincts.

McBride’s deputy, Gary Baum, provided the newspaper on Wednesday the precinct-by-precinct tally of registered voters that totaled 245,328.

State elections spokesman Chris Whitmire said the law requires local elections officials to calculate the number of machines based on “active” voters, not just those who have registered to vote. Whitmire said his office has a list provided by the county on Nov. 2 showing 244,923 active voters. Baum did not say the figures he provided the newspaper had been purged of inactive or no-longer-qualified voters.

McBride’s office has yet to say precisely how many machines were distributed.

But Baum said Tuesday night the number was between 750 and 800 of the 1,000 machines the county has. He said unused machines were broken and a couple dozen were assigned to election headquarters for “fail safe” voters, those who had moved within the county and had notified election officials.

Baum said he did not know why all of the 200 to 250 machines went unused.

The law’s “as near thereto as practicable” language gives local election officials some “wiggle room” on a precise number of machines required, Whitmire said.

But the law has no teeth. It carries no penalty for violating it, other than lawsuits, he said.

Poll workers complain

Many precinct captains of the county’s 124 precincts said they received fewer machines on Tuesday than usual.

“During the (GOP) primary (in June), we had eight when only 50 people voted,” a manager from the Lincolnshire precinct said Tuesday night as she stood in line with her counterparts at elections headquarters in the county administration building. She said her precinct was given six for the presidential election Tuesday, and that one broke.

Poll workers from the A.C. Moore, Keenan, Dutch Fork and Pontiac precincts had fewer machines than in past elections.

Nancy Brock, a poll worker for 27 years in Richland County, said Wednesday she was stunned to learn that her voting location received half the number of usual machines. Her A.C. Moore Elementary School precinct typically receives six machines. Tuesday it got three, Brock said.

Precinct workers asked a county representative who visited the school Monday to provide at least one more machine. “We pleaded for another machine,’’ Brock said. “The answer was obviously no.”

This time, the county didn’t ask her how many machines were needed, in contrast to former longtime elections director Mike Cinnamon, whom Brock said checked regularly with poll workers.

Frank Sarnowski, poll clerk at the Ward 33 precinct in Martin Luther King Park near Five Points, said he also was not asked by the county how many voting machines were needed. The county usually provides five machines. The precinct got three this time.

“I asked for more,’’ Sarnowski said Wednesday. “They said that was all that was available. They didn’t say why.’’

McBride said Tuesday her staff did ask some poll workers how many machines they needed.

The problem was made worse when machines broke down in possibly dozens of locations.

Whitmire told The Associated Press that state officials sent extra voting machines to some polling places in the county and that they also dispatched extra technicians to service broken machines.

The shortage of machines available does not appear to be tied to the budget for McBride’s office.

County Council granted her the full $1,228,574 McBride requested for the fiscal year that began July 1, county spokeswoman Melinda R. Edwards said in an email to the newspaper. The fiscal year before, Council added about $153,000 to McBride’s budget request of $1,105,765, according to the email.

“They got the most money they’ve ever had,” County Councilman Seth Rose said.

With the highly contested penny sales tax and a couple of tight political races hanging in the balance Wednesday, McBride and her staff stayed busy feeding paper absentee ballots into a counting machine, which had broken down at about 1 a.m. and didn’t get rolling again until about 10 a.m. Technicians scrambled to unlock information stored in some voting machines that had malfunctioned during the process of consolidating votes from multiple machines at the same precinct.

Political fallout

McBride and Baum kept political operatives and reporters gathered at the office up-to-date on the count, but they declined to explain what went wrong or why the day before.

They said the office would issue a news release, but none had been sent by 9:30 p.m.

Tuesday night, as frustrated voters waited in lines after the polls closed – some unable to vote until nearly midnight, McBride repeatedly put off interview requests from the newspaper as well as television reporters. However, she spoke with a State newspaper reporter about 5:30 p.m. before polls closed and blamed the troubles on her predecessor.

She has made no public statement since.

State Reps. James Smith and Todd Rutherford and County Council chairman Kelvin Washington and Councilman Joe McEachern were among the politicians gathered at McBride’s office Wednesday.

Smith and Rutherford held an impromptu news conference to announce the delegation will conduct a hearing on the voting problems, as soon as next week.

“We plan to focus on accountability and how we make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Smith said.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of this,” Rutherford said. “It’s not only outrageous, it violated the law. ... We’re not sitting here apologizing for it. We know something didn’t go right.”

They said they don’t know whether machines weren’t serviced properly or whether the poll workers weren’t sufficiently trained.

State law requires keeping machines voting-ready and poll workers trained.

While Smith and Rutherford, both Democrats, were reluctant to say whether the problems determined the outcome of races, they agreed that many voters gave up because of the long waits, losing their right to vote.

Rep. Nathan Ballentine, a Republican from Chapin who represents portions of Richland and Lexington counties, called the problems inexcusable and aimed his criticism at McBride.

“At this point, I’d be hard-pressed to say she needs to be in charge of the next” election, Ballentine said.

Richland Councilwoman Val Hutchinson, who won a squeaker of a re-election to a third term Wednesday night, said she’s part of a group looking into contesting the election and asking for a “revote.”

“We think there have been enough complaints countywide that it warrants looking into what happened during this election, correcting it and holding another election,” said Hutchinson, one of three Republicans on the 11-member Richland County Council.

Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland said, “This was a nightmare, a massive failure of voting machines across the county.”

Legislators were assured the voting process would run smoothly, Neal said. “We were all led to believe there would be no problem.”

Early voting laws?

Whitmire said the difficulties underscore the need for a state law allowing early voting. Dozens of bills have failed to get through the Legislature, the state elections office spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the leader of the county’s legislative delegation, Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said Wednesday that McBride, top members of her staff and Richland County Election Commission chairman Liz Crum, an election law specialist, will testify next Tuesday before a group of local and state officials about the voting snafus.

The delegation selects the 15-member elections commission, and the delegation unanimously selected McBride over Cinnamon, who had directed county elections since 1975, to run the office.

The hearing is slated for 11 a.m. Tuesday in the Senate Gressette office building’s Judiciary Committee room on the State House grounds, Jackson said.

The public may attend. But if a crowd shows up, the location might change, he said.

Cinnamon, who retired last year after 40 years of managing elections in Richland County, said Wednesday he had never encountered problems like those that occurred Tuesday.

McBride told The State on Tuesday afternoon that Cinnamon had not left information on “how many (machines) they may have used in the past.”

If the county needed guidance from past elections, Cinnamon said Wednesday, there are two sets of records available to McBride’s staff: an election file showing the number of machines in past elections and election returns, which show the number of machines used.

Asked whether her office called Cinnamon for advice, McBride said, “I’ll plead the 5th on that one.”

Amid all the political fallout, a voter who contacted the newspaper put all the heated rhetoric into perspective.

Tom Eggleston, a minister who voted in the Riverwalk precinct near Irmo, said he was as frustrated as other voters about waiting more than four hours on a chilly morning to cast his ballot.

“As I stood in line for four hours and 15 minutes to vote ... it dawned on me,” Eggleston wrote in a letter to The State newspaper. “How does my four hours and 15 minutes compare to the soldier who is out in the trenches everyday protecting my freedom? How does my four hours and 15 minutes compare to the homeless man who is out on the street with no place to go?

“Standing in line is a privilege because it allows each of us the ability to cast our voice for freedom.”

Staff writers Sammy Fretwell, Joey Holleman, John Monk, Dawn Hinshaw and Mindy Lucas contributed. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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