Bolton: A revote in Richland County would be uncalled for

Associate EditorNovember 25, 2012 

— WHILE IT IS appalling that Richland County’s Nov. 6 elections were so badly mangled that an unknown number of voters were left out of the process, it would be even more appalling if the results were voided and new elections ordered, as some critics would like.

A group of citizens and public officials that has called for results to be tossed out suggests there was a “deliberate effort” to sabotage the elections. But this group offers no evidence to support that serious allegation.

I feel for those who wanted to vote but didn’t get the opportunity. Facing ridiculously long lines, many were forced to leave without casting ballots because they had to go to work or take care of other responsibilities. Others simply got fed up and left.

But while this never should have happened, I see no practical reason for there to be a revote. Nor do I see a legal one.

There is an obscure passage in state election law (Section 7-13-1170) that allows the governor to order a new election under certain circumstances, but I can’t see it coming into play in this instance. The law states that “if for any reason the election is declared void by competent authority, and these facts are made to appear to the satisfaction of the Governor, he shall, should the law not otherwise provide for this contingency, order an election or a new election to be held.”

What “competent authority” exists that could void an election? Presumably it’s a court. Or could it be the state or county election commission? Who knows?

Regardless, what justification is there for a “competent authority” to throw out the Richland elections and send voters back to the polls?

While the election was badly mismanaged, to date we know of no voting irregularities or fraud or intentional tampering. And while it appears county elections officials didn’t follow the law in terms of having the proper number of voting machines at each polling place, that’s more a function of bad planning and terrible math. The law doesn’t outline any penalty for not meeting the voting-machine standard of one per 250 voters.

Certainly, we should all be concerned that many — and, again, we don’t know how many — didn’t get to vote. But is that reason enough to call for a revote? Absolutely not.

To do that, we would have to disregard the fact that more than 160,000 people — nearly two thirds of Richland County’s registered voters — braved the cold and the long lines and the shortage of voting machines to exercise their right. Some of those folks stood in line five, six, seven hours.

I had to wait in line for four and a half hours. There were a number of voters in line who had to go to work but called in to alert their employers of the situation. Some weren’t confident about what response they’d get from work.

One gentleman had arrived at 7 a.m. with hopes of voting and then driving out of town, where he would pick up a business associate — I’m pretty sure it was a superior — at the airport. It was obvious that he was torn. But he didn’t leave. He called ahead, explained the situation and apologized. He wanted to vote. The business associate said he would find his own way from the airport.

Do we now tell that voter and others who stood in long lines until they got an opportunity to vote that their sacrifice was in vain?

Sadly, this is one of those unfortunate instances when things went so terribly wrong that there simply is no fix. The thing to do now is accept the election results and move on.

Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting what happened. County elections and voting director Lillian McBride has a lot of explaining to do. It’s hard to imagine that she will be able to hold onto her job, even though it’s unclear who, if anyone, can remove her.

Richland legislators, who appointed the director of elections and voter registration in the county, must get to the bottom of this mess and make changes that ensure elections will never be so completely botched again. The legislative delegation has scheduled a hearing on the matter for Monday where we should learn the specifics about what went so wrong. But we know what happened: Poor planning, insufficient maintenance, lax management and, yes, incompetence combined to produce this fiasco.

But there is nothing to suggest foul play; despite the flaws, the election results are legitimate. While the public’s anger, frustration and moral outrage are understandable, we don’t need opportunists and spoiled sports stirring the pot.

The voice of reason must prevail: Identify the problems, make necessary changes — whether it be in personnel or process or equipment or all three — and move forward.

Enough damage has been done. Let’s not make a total mockery of our election process by feeding the idea that if you raise enough doubt about an election you can trigger a revote and an opportunity to change valid outcomes that you disagree with. That’s no way to run a democracy.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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