RICHLAND COUNTY ELECTION MESS

Richland legislators set hearing date to review election debacle; votes certified

Votes are certified, await state seal of approval

mlucas@thestate.comNovember 17, 2012 

The wait was over four hours to vote at Rice Creek Elementary on Hard Scrabble Road in Columbia during election day Tuesday. Lines went down two hallways that fed into where the voting machines were located.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • Fact Finding The Richland County Legislative Delegation will hold a fact-finding hearing at 1 p.m. Nov. 26, in room 105 of the Gressette Building in the State House complex. Talk to us How long did it take you to vote? Did you walk away without voting? We’d like to tell your story. Email us at state@thestate.com. Please use your name.

— The Richland County Legislative Delegation announced Friday that it will hold a hearing Nov. 26 to “discuss the process of elections with respect to Election Day.”

The delegation is calling the meeting a fact-finding hearing that will include county election commission chairwoman Liz Crum, elections director Lillian McBride and the county’s legal counsel, Steve Hamm.

It’s uncertain whether public comment will be allowed at the hearing. Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, tweeted that he had been told the public could not speak. But Rep. Joe McEachern, D-Richland, later said he doesn’t see how the public can be shut out.

Darrell Jackson, a Democrat who is the delegation’s chairman, could not be reached for comment. But one of his representatives said the hearing’s format has not yet been set.

Angry voters are looking for a way to vent their frustrations over long waits in Election Day lines that snaked outside buildings and into the chilly weather. Machines broke down. And some poll workers seemed uninformed and unhelpful.

Some votes came in after midnight. The counting of the votes then took days. Legal actions sent the election first to circuit court then to the state Supreme Court. Paper ballots were discovered to be printed inconsistently. And several small bags of uncounted ballots were found in a closet and an office after the tallying was believed to have been completed.

Criticism has focused on McBride, who reports directly to the 15-member delegation, which hired her in 2011 to run the county’s elections and voter registration office. She has not spoken publicly since Nov. 6.

The announcement Friday of the public hearing came within minutes of the county’s certification of its election results – 10 days after voters went to the polls on Election Day. Other counties certified their results a week earlier.

On Friday, delays with certification caused election members to go back to the Supreme Court and ask for more time.

The Supreme Court had given the county a noon deadline to certify its vote so statewide results could be certified as well on Friday. But by noon, officials were still going through the more than 500 ballots cast as absentee, provisional and failsafe votes.

After the missed deadline, state election officials called the ongoing delays 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.”

Even though election commission members started the process shortly after 8 a.m., processing the usual challenged and provisional ballots took longer than expected. Part of the holdup, as with earlier counting, came from torn ballots or ballots that would not feed properly into machines. In those cases, those ballots had to be hand counted.

Just before noon Friday, county election attorney Hamm petitioned the Supreme Court and asked for an additional two hours. The court did not respond.

At 1:30 p.m. he asked for an additional extension. Late in the afternoon the court granted a noon Monday extension for the county and a 5 p.m. deadline for the state though the county’s attorney did not think they would need it.

“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,” Hamm said.

Of the 581 absentee, failsafe and provisionally cast ballots, 271 had been accepted though as commission members began sorting those, several were found to be blank or contained too many votes. It was unclear Friday as to how many were accepted into the final count.

Votes rejected outright by the commission fell into a range of categories from absentee ballots that were not signed or mailed in after Nov. 6, to voters who voted in the wrong precinct.

In addition, there was a handful of ballots within a larger pool of challenged ballots cast in which the voter had left his or her precinct or attempted to vote at the county election commission office, at 2020 Hampton St. That office, while able to process absentee ballots and ballots that might pose legal issues, is not an official voting precinct, Hamm confirmed Friday while waiting for the certification process to conclude.

“This is not a precinct for purposes of individuals who are registered to vote in a particular precinct,” Hamm said.

The long lines that formed outside the election commission’s headquarters on Election Day confused some voters. Other voters said they were told by poll workers at various precincts to go to the county office.

Some of those votes – about 18 – were not counted.

“I have heard those same stories, and I don’t doubt that they are true,” Hamm said.

That concern as well as a “multitude of issues,” Hamm said, will be taken up by the county’s legislative delegation.

The State Election Commission will meet at 2 p.m. Monday to certify statewide voting results. Richland’s chaos has held up that process.

Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.

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