COLUMBIA, SC — The state Election Commission will count all votes cast in Richland County on Friday after the Democratic party won a temporary restraining order Thursday to halt certification in a disputed state House race.
Read the petition and the order below
Circuit Judge Casey Manning, who issued a 10-day restraining order earlier in the day, agreed to the count by state officials on Thursday evening and SLED agents seized the voting records from Richland County.
The state Election Commission also will audit the results and hand count paper all ballots in the race for House District 75 between Democrat Joe McCulloch and Republican Kirkman Finlay, who holds a 265-vote lead after the county finished counting on Wednesday night.
Vote tallying in Richland County was delayed by machine malfunctions during Tuesday's election but some of the numbers -- particularly a late surge in absentee votes for Finlay -- raised questions among Democrats.
A state count of Richland County ballots should alleviate concerns by Democrats who want to make sure McCulloch did not beat Finlay, Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said. The state involvement should help erase questions in other county races as well, he said. The court order also allowed one observer from each party and the Richland County Election Commission to watch the count.
"We can finally put this to rest," Harpootlian said.
Republicans said they are not protesting the state count.
"With the amount of time Richland County spent counting the ballots, we don't think this will change the results," said Matt Moore, executive director of the S.C. Republican Party.
After Richland County election officials counted the last paper absentee ballots on Wednesday evening, Finlay's 46-vote deficit for turned into a 265-vote lead.
But Finlay collected 75 percent of the final 621 paper absentee votes counted. In one subset of absentee ballots, Finlay received 267 new votes, while McCulloch, an attorney, got none.
The presidential vote in the final round of paper absentee ballots found a similar trend favoring the Republican candidate. GOP nominee Mitt Romney received 2,087 votes, while President Barack Obama got 37. The president won Richland County overall by a 2-to-1 margin.
Moore said nothing can be read into partial results. "The whole is what matters," he said.
Democratic officials also raised issues with some machines that needed repair or recharging to retrieve vote results in their request for a restraining order.
In his original order, Manning said party officials have demonstrated anomalies with both the voting process in Richland County and the vote tabulation itself. The judge set a hearing for 10 a.m. next Tuesday to go over the complaints by the Democratic Party. The hearing takes place an hour before the Richland County delegation is set to meet about the election-day voting problems.
After the state count, Richland County can vote to certify those results, said Liz Crum, chairwoman of Richland County Election Commission. Certification is supposed to take place by Friday, but the state count and audit could delay that until the weekend, she said.
After the initial restraining order, SLED agents arrived at the Richland County election office at about 1:30 p.m. Thursday to collect ballots for House District 75, Crum said. County officials were in the midst of their own audit when the agents arrived, she said.
By taking away ballots for the race between Finlay and McCulloch, however, the county could not audit other races, including president and a local sales tax, Crum said. Democratic officials agreed to state involvement after speaking to the S.C. Attorney General's office.
Clemson political scientist Dave Woodard said he worries about collateral damage from the legal fight in Richland County.
"When voters already believe they have no effect on the outcome of elections, having all these lawyers and boards get involved will make them lose confidence more," he said. "This will build on their dismay."
Finlay and McCulloch are trying to succeed retiring state Rep. Jim Harrison, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
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Richland County Democrats petition seeking a temporary restraining order
Richland County Democrats' temporary restraining order