RICHLAND COUNTY ELECTION MESS

Update: Richland election certified

jmonk@thestate.com, mlucas@thestate.comNovember 16, 2012 

UPDATE 4:55 pm: The Richland County Election Commission formally signed and certified the results of the 2012 election Friday afternoon.

The commission finished the polling process just after 4 p.m. Friday. The county was supposed to have certified its results at 12 p.m., but requested two two-hour extensions. The Supreme Court granted those requests Friday afternoon, giving the county until noon Monday to certify results, but county officials said they wouldn't need the entire extension.

"I want to get this done, the state election commission wants to get this done and the public is ready for this chapter to be ended," county election commission attorney Steve Hamm said.

Earlier, state election commission officials said the delays were unacceptable.

“We don’t want a county election commission to certify incorrect results,” said state election commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.

“But taking a step back and looking at the broader picture, it’s not acceptable to not have results of an election a week after the results should have been certified.”

The process of handling the usual challenged and provisional ballots took longer than expected Friday morning forcing county election members to go back to the Supreme Court and ask for more time. The court did not respond.

The Supreme Court had given the county a noon deadline to certify its vote in order for the statewide results to be verified. But by noon, officials were still going through the more than 500 ballots cast as part of its pool of absentee, provisional and failsafe votes. That deadline was extended to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Friday before being pushed to 12 p.m. Monday.

THIS MORNING'S STORY:

Forty-four more ballots cast in the Nov. 6 election were discovered at the Richland County Elections & Voter Registration office late Thursday afternoon.

The discovery came on top of about 150 uncounted ballots discovered in two bags that morning.

The nearly 200 missing ballots were not expected to alter the outcome of any of the numerous state and local races on the Nov. 6 ballot. But the day’s events brought yet another round of embarrassments in an election process that has become perhaps the mother of all bungled county elections in modern S.C. history.

The 150 or so misplaced ballots discovered Thursday morning were in two sealed bags in a closet. After those ballots were counted, the additional batch of lost ballots was found; those were counted by hand in the early evening.

After the second discovery, election commission attorney Steve Hamm interviewed the dozen or so employees in the office of elections director Lillian McBride, including McBride, asking each if they knew of any other missing ballots.

Elections officials thought they had counted all ballots in the Nov. 6 general election in a marathon 11-hour session Wednesday at the county administration building. The biggest delay was caused by paper absentee ballots that weren’t being properly read by a ballot-counting machine. Workers discovered there were two ballot styles, each with a different size typeface.

The final count was delayed a week because of questions about the polling places, the counting and various legal actions that sent the election into circuit court and then to the state Supreme Court.

The election commission is scheduled meet at 8 a.m. today at the county administration building to certify the election’s results after handling the usual challenged and provisional ballots.

The court ordered the state commission to certify the results by 5 p.m. today. Any protests must be filed with the appropriate election commission by noon Wednesday.

A lack of information

Hours after polls closed in Richland County on Nov. 6, as horror stories began rolling in about machine break-downs and voter waits as long as seven hours, a State Election Commission worker sent McBride an emergency email.

“Someone has to get out there and fill the information gap,” wrote Chris Whitmire, the State Election Commission’s public information director.

“I know you’re still knee-deep in it right now and it’s been a long night, but you’ll have people knocking on your door wanting the answers to a lot of these questions tomorrow.”

Whitmire wrote that, specifically, McBride – who at $86,344 a year is one of the county’s highest-paid officials – had to be the one to tell the public what went wrong.

“You have to be prepared to say what that was, why it was, and what will be done to ‘fix’ it,” he wrote.

But McBride didn’t do that. Since Election Day, she has said nothing to explain to the public what was going on – or why.

Last Thursday, County Election Commission chairman Liz Crum stepped in to fill some gaps.

On Thursday, Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, offered this explanation for McBride’s silence: In view of the numerous questions about her handling of the matter, Jackson said, he and Hamm advised McBride not to talk – for now.

“It’s not because Lillian doesn’t want to comment,” Jackson said. “I advised her to save all her comments until she gets a chance to go before the legislative delegation and answer all the questions – as well as to wait until all the mechanics of certifying the election have been completed.”

“This will be a public hearing, and she will answer all the questions,” Jackson said.

Moreover, Jackson said, Hamm will do a separate investigation. He will use pertinent documents and interviews with relevant people to determine what happened and report his findings to the delegation.

“He will also make suggestions about what we do to make sure this does not happen again,” Jackson said. “No one is dodging. No one is hiding. It’s timing, right now.”

Behind the scenes, “Lillian has been nothing but cooperative,” Jackson said.

McBride has an unusual status among Richland County’s 1,700 or so county employees – no county official can fire her even though her $1.2 million budget is provided by county taxpayers. Under a little-noticed state law, she was hired for her post in mid-2011 by the county’s legislative delegation, made up of four senators and 11 representatives. Jackson is chairman of that delegation.

On Wednesday, during some 11 hours of a long-delayed vote tallying at county offices on Harden Street, McBride wasn’t in the counting room. Instead, volunteer members of the County Election Commission and office workers labored over the complicated task of finally getting an accurate count without her.

With the Thanksgiving holiday looming next week, any public hearing or explanation of what went wrong would come the week after, at the earliest, Jackson said.

In the meantime, these and other questions will fester:

• Who was responsible for planning and implementing the election process? What does that plan say?

• How many voting machines were at each of the county’s 124 precincts? What was the machine allocation plan based on?

• Why did machines at precincts not work? How many didn’t work and where were they?

• How many emergency machines were deployed and where? Which precincts received emergency technicians’ help?

• How did two styles of paper absentee ballots get printed?

Crum also has questions she wants answered. According to a list of nine questions she gave to McBride last week, her questions include how many machines were out of service on Election Day and why?

Government watchdog John Crangle of Common Cause of South Carolina said McBride is responsible for what happens on Election Day.

“It’s her job to make sure there are enough voting machines, to make sure they operate properly and to have an emergency backup system in place – she fumbled the ball three times.”

Hoopla and questions aside, some things appeared settled by the election.

On Thursday, convinced at last by Wednesday’s recount he had lost the election for House Seat 75, Democrat Joe McCulloch sent Republican Kirkman Finlay a gracious note he might have sent a week ago, had the elections been run properly.

“I congratulate Mr. Finlay on his victory and wish him success in representing the people and interests of House District 75. He has my full cooperation and support,” McCulloch said.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344. Mindy Lucas contributed.

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