Richland County elections mess

Richland County vote count resumes today

After long lines, voter anger, suits, totals expected at last

jmonk@thestate.comNovember 14, 2012 

  • WHAT’S NEXT FOR RICHLAND COUNTY • Today’s counting will begin at 1 p.m. in the fourth floor conference room at the Richland County Administration Building. Official results are expected by the end of the day. • The Richland County Election Commision has until noon Friday to deliver the results to the State Election Commission. • The state commission will certify the results by 5 p.m. Friday. • Any protests must be filed with the appropriate election commission by noon Wednesday, Nov. 21.

— Richland County voters could learn as early as this afternoon what the county’s official results are in the Nov. 6 county elections.

Votes will be tallied beginning at 1 p.m. on the fourth floor of the county administration building on Harden Street, Election Commission chairwoman Liz Crum said Tuesday evening.

“We will get this done, and we will get it done right,” Crum said. Election observers and news media can observe county officials do the count.

“Everybody on hand can watch the canvassing,” she said. “We never finished counting the vote – this is not a recount.”

Crum spoke several hours later at county elections offices after the S.C. Supreme Court dismissed all pending legal actions that had frozen completion of an official Richland County tally.

The justices’ Tuesday afternoon order also directed SLED – which late last week had seized all electronic voting cartridges and paper ballots used in the election – to return that material to the Richland County Election Commission by 5 p.m. Tuesday. That was done.

The county’s Nov. 6 election was marked by shortages of voting machines and precinct workers, as well as numerous machine breakdowns. Thousands of people stood in long lines up to five hours, and many people – no one knows how many – chose to not vote rather than to wait. Critics called it one of the most bungled county elections in modern state history.

The day after the election, the tally in some races still was not finished. With people in some people precincts voting after 11:30 p.m., ballot boxes didn’t make it to elections offices until after midnight. Then, problems counting absentee ballots delayed many results until the next afternoon.

Questions arose about missing machines and whether all votes had been properly counted, especially in the tight House 75 race between Kirkman Finlay, a Republican, and Democrat Joe McCulloch.

In that race, preliminary results show Finlay beat McCulloch by fewer than 300 votes, according to county elections officials. However, in an earlier tally, officials said McCulloch was the winner.

Crum said she didn’t expect the preliminary results of any race to be overturned by today’s tabulation.

However, she said, “Anything is possible, but I don’t know if it’s probable. We’ve got no way of telling whether any elections will change or not.”

S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian said late Tuesday that he thinks votes from some machines in the Finlay-McCulloch race were not counted. And he thinks there might have been uncounted votes among paper absentee ballots.

“It may be that Finlay won the race after all,” Harpootlian said.

Matt Moore, S.C. Republican Party executive director, said he believed Finlay will remain the winner.

“I find it hard to believe there are machines out there that haven’t been counted,” Moore said.

Since Nov. 6, Lillian McBride, the $86,344-a-year director of the county Elections & Voter Registration Office, has refused all comment about her handling of the election. Critics have raised numerous questions about how she planned for the election, especially since she told county officials last May when they approved a $1.2 million budget for her office that the election would run smoothly.

McBride’s silence means that no authoritative information has been released on exactly how many machines were at which precincts, how many poll workers were available at polls and a host of other concerns.

Crum said Tuesday evening she hopes that McBride’s office and her election commission will give the public answers to all questions about the election. But, due to the ongoing certification process and the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, answers won’t be available until the last week in November – at the earliest, Crum said.

Although McBride’s office receives its funding from the Richland County Council, council exercises no control over her office and cannot fire her. Neither can Crum and the commission. The county’s 15-member legislative delegation, which gave McBride her job, has that authority.

The Supreme Court’s order, and the return of voting materials to county officials late Tuesday, were latest actions in a weeklong election drama.

Last Thursday, after questions arose in the Finlay-McCulloch race, Democrats asked for a recount of the race’s ballots. That developed into a recount of all county votes. Circuit Judge Casey Manning cleared the way for a recount by ordering all ballots and voting machines placed in state police custody.

The S.C. Republican Party then took the matter to the state Supreme Court, arguing in a filing last week that Manning didn’t have the authority to order voting materials seized and order a recount.

In its unanimous order Tuesday returning the matter to the county, the high court agreed with Republicans that Manning lacked authority.

“The circuit court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the election protests,” the justices wrote.

Harpootlian said he was “ecstatic” about the court’s ruling because it assures that votes will be properly tabulated in an open manner.

Both Democrats and Republicans, Harpootlian said, were appalled at how poorly the election was run and that “hundreds if not thousands of people walked away” rather than stand in line until late at night.

“This shouldn’t be like Survivor TV shows,” he said in a press conference later Tuesday afternoon. “I hope the legislative delegation corrects it for the future.”

The county elections commission has until noon Friday to report its tally to the State Elections Commission. The state commission has until 5 p.m. Friday to certify the election, which means to announce the final results, the court’s order says.

Anyone wanting to challenge the certification by the state commission must file the challenge by noon Nov. 21, the order says.

Richland County SC General Election review

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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