'Colossal failure'

Lawmaker apologizes for Richland County election mess

Garrick: Elections director must be held accountable in county’s failures

jmonk@thestate.comNovember 19, 2012 

— A state lawmaker from Richland County has issued a public apology for the bungled Richland County elections Nov. 6, calling them a “colossal failure” that caused hundreds if not thousands of people “to drop out of long voting lines.”

The statement by Rep. Mia Butler Garrick, D-Richland, made last week in a blast email to friends and supporters, was the first apology by an elected state official to date about the election missteps marked by severe shortages and multiple breakdowns of voting machines. Never in memory have Richland County elections been so trouble-plagued, local politicians have said.

“My heart broke as elderly grandmothers and grandfathers senselessly tried to brave the cold so that they too, could exercise the right that so many of them fought for us to have,” Garrick wrote, speaking of the civil rights movement. Garrick is African-American, as are many of her constituents in northeast Columbia.

“Never before have I been so dismayed and disgusted, as I watched hundreds of moms and dads stand outside for hours in the freezing cold, trying to warm their babies and toddlers in their arms,” Garrick wrote. Her email included both a statement to friends, as well as a memo she had sent her 14 state lawmaker colleagues on the Richland County Legislative Delegation.

The delegation as a group should also apologize to voters and accept responsibility for putting county elections director Lillian McBride in office and “hold her accountable for the procedural, logistical and preparatory failures that caused Tuesday’s (Nov. 6) debacle,” Garrick wrote.

Under a state law its members passed in 2011, the county delegation took control of the county elections and voter registration department. The delegation hired McBride, the $86,344-a-year official who oversaw the Nov. 6 elections.

Rep. Joe McEachern, D-Richland, said he agreed with Garrick that the delegation is responsible for the election mess and people in charge of ensuring a smooth election need to be held accountable.

“There was so much incompetence somebody needs to leave their position,” he said. “We lost a lot of votes that day...it’s just inexcusable.”

Other county delegation members said Sunday that they generally agreed with Garrick that accountability needs to be assessed.

But they stressed that – even though there’s overwhelming anecdotal evidence of widespread election breakdowns that led to lines up to seven hours long – the delegation must first investigate before taking any action. A hearing is scheduled for next week.

“It is proper that we find out exactly what happened,” said Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said, “We are having a hearing to get to the bottom of this. The list of questions seems to keep growing about how all the decisions were made about how the machines were allocated. At this point, all options are on the table as to how we remedy this.”

Delegation chairman Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, cautioned there should not be a rush to judgment.

“We need to wait until all the facts come out,” he said. “I’ve learned to get all the facts, and then come to some conclusion, but only after you’ve gathered all the facts.”

The delegation will hold a public meeting on Nov. 26 to hear from McBride and Richland County Election Commission chairwoman Liz Crum about what happened. McBride has declined comment since Election Day. Crum, who was appointed by the delegation, has apologized for the problems.

Other problems included paper absentee ballots that inexplicably weren’t formatted in a way that could be read by vote-scanning machines, as well as paper ballots in bags found after all the other ballots were counted.

Long lines were created at many precincts – no one knows exactly how many – because the county did not supply enough machines as mandated by state law. The county is supposed to have one voting machine for every 250 voters. For example, only three machines were working at the Summit Parkway precinct, which has 5,000 registered voters, Garrick said.

In a state capital area that has been dealing with recent governmental missteps – from the Columbia police failure to find the body of lobbyist Tom Sponseller for 10 days to the state’s failure to protect 4.45 million state tax records from hackers – the Richland County election has achieved its own dimension, observers say.

In addition to machine shortages, machines were broken and poll workers were apparently not well trained, Garrick wrote.

At Summit Park Middle School, where voters from two precincts voted, a “line for each precinct was wrapped around the building from the front as well as the back, and there were no signs or poll workers on hand to help voters distinguish between the two,” Garrick wrote.

At Ridge View High School, some voters spent four hours – mostly outside in the cold – while waiting to vote, Garrick wrote.

Garrick said Sunday that she agreed with her follow lawmakers who said the delegation should gather facts in a systematic fashion before proceeding. But, she said, given the widespread public concern, she felt she had to speak out.

“I like to be straightforward. I don’t want the people of my district to have any doubts about where I stand,” Garrick said in an interview.

Reaction to her email has been overwhelmingly positive, she said. “People are saying, ‘Thank you, finally somebody is speaking out from the delegation and saying this was a debacle’ – then they offer their personal accounts.”

Staff writer Dawn Hinshaw contributed to this story.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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