COLUMBIA, SC — In a count delayed a week, Kirkman Finlay appeared to prevail over Joe McCulloch, 7,207 to 6,891 in House District 75, in one of tightest and most closely watched races in Richland County’s botched Nov. 6 election, according to preliminary results from Wednesday’s tally.
Finlay, a Republican, had 6,771 votes, and McCulloch, a Democrat, had 6,506 in the original count.
Totals came just after 11 p.m. Wednesday – eight days after the election marked by huge outcries from voters and candidates alike and a tumultuous legal back-and-forth that led courts to interrupt Richland County’s vote before the count was complete last week.
Results showed the penny sales tax issue passed, with 80,223 voting in favor and 73,648 voting against, a 6,575-vote difference – a 52 percent to 47 percent win. Last week’s initial results in the penny sales tax issue showed a spread of about 9,300 votes.
But the results produced an upset in another tight race – County Council member Val Hutchinson, a Republican, lost to Democrat newcomer Julie Ann Dixon. Dixon had 7,540 votes; Hutchinson, 7,317.
Initial results in that race had Hutchison with 7,105 votes, Dixon with 6,923, although Dixon led in early returns Nov. 6 and Hutchinson was led initially to believe she had lost.
The Richland County Election & Voter Registration office announced the results at the Richland County administration building at about 11:15 p.m. The commission had supervised a tedious count of all 154,000-plus ballots – electronic and paper – that took almost six hours and involved more than a dozen people.
Wednesday’s results are unofficial and will be certified at 8 a.m. Friday in County Council chambers at the administration building on Harden Street. The commission will review provisional and challenged ballots, then certify the results.
The S.C. Supreme Court, which took an appeal from a lower court, told county elections officials they had until noon Friday to deliver the results to the State Election Commission.
The Nov. 6 vote for the presidential race, State House, County Council and board of education races should have been tallied a week ago.
But because of reasons still not fully explained, the Nov. 6 county elections procedures were thrown into disorder in numerous ways, including the fact that numerous paper ballots had somehow managed to be printed in a smaller-type format that could not be read by the voting scanning machines the county uses to tally votes.
Earlier Wednesday, officials went through some 15,000 paper absentee ballots, searching for the defective ballots with the smaller type size. Once those defective ballots were located, officials took them out and then slowly transferred by hand the choices marked on the defective paper ballots to ballots with the properly sized type.
Then the new paper ballots – apparently several hundred – were run through a scanning machines.
Totals from that batch of paper ballots were added to those from more than 14,000 other paper ballots counted earlier Wednesday. Those totals were then added to a computerized tally from some 700 voting machines.
Wednesday’s count – the first complete count of the Nov. 6 ballots – was overseen by Richland County Election Commission chairwoman Liz Crum, who with the commission’s four other members helped tally votes. Also on hand were a half-dozen staffers from the Richland County Elections & Voter Registration office, as well as voting machine technicians.
The office’s executive director, Lillian McBride – the $86,344 department head who was in charge of orchestrating last week’s election – did not take part in Wednesday’s count.
Since last week, McBride has refused to explain what led to one of the most bungled elections in modern state history. Many of the county’s 124 precincts lacked sufficient numbers of voting machines and many machines broke down, resulting in waits for three to seven hours for thousands of voters across the county. Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people dropped out of the lines and never got to vote.
By law, the county was supposed to have one machine per 250 voters. Earlier this year, McBride had assured County Council members the $1.2 million that council had given her office for this year’s budget would result in a smooth election.
Asked why McBride was not in the counting room with commission members and her staffers, Crum said that “her presence would have been a distraction” because reporters at the count would have been asking her questions about the Nov. 6 race.
“Nobody asked her to come, but we did not ask her not to come, either,” Crum said. Crum said the last time she saw McBride was around 6 p.m. in her office elsewhere in the building.
Crum said at some point McBride will give a full explanation of what went wrong on election day.
“Our goal now is to get an accurate count, get the vote certified, and then there will be explanations – there will be a written report, and there will be explanations.”
Because of next week’s Thanksgiving holiday, answers won’t be available until the week after, Crum said.
Representatives from Republican and Democratic parties as well as a half-dozen reporters watched Wednesday’s count.
It took elections officials four hours Wednesday, from 1 p.m. to shortly after 5 p.m., to get all the electronic and paper data ready to begin the counting.
Questions remain about the different numerical totals between Wednesday night and last week. But due to the lateness of the hour when results were announced Wednesday, explanations will have to wait.