Hearing today on Richland County’s election debacle

jmonk@thestate November 26, 2012 

Dick Chappell, left, reads a book as he waits to vote at Kilbourne Park Baptist Church in Columbia during election day Tuesday. Lines wrapped around two rooms at the church.during election day in Columbia.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • If you go The Richland County legislative delegation will hold a hearing at 1 p.m. Monday in Room 105 of the Gressette Building at the State House complex.
  • Contact your lawmaker about election mess Senators John Courson, (803) 212-6250 Darrell Jackson, (803) 212-6048 Joel Lourie, (803) 212-6116 John Scott, (803) 212-6048 Representatives Jimmy Bales, (803) 734-3058 Nathan Ballentine, (803) 734-2969 *Beth Bernstein, (803) 212-6940 *Kirkman Finlay III, (803) 212-6943 Mia Butler Garrick, (803) 212-6794 Christopher Hart, (803) 734-3061 Leon Howard, (803) 734-3046 Joseph McEachern, (803) 212-6875 Joe Neal, (803) 734-2804 Todd Rutherford, (803) 734-9441 James Smith, (803) 734-2997 * (newly elected)

— Despite a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Richland County’s election law, a public hearing today into the causes of the Nov. 6 county election mess will go forward.

“We’re definitely still on,” county legislative delegation chairman Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland said Sunday night.

“This is a fact-finding hearing, not a hearing to take any action,” Jackson said. The hearing begins at 1 p.m. in Room 105 in the Gressette Senate Office Building on State House grounds.

At the hearing, county Elections & Voter Registration director Lillian McBride is expected to break a three weeks’ silence about numerous difficulties voters faced in voting in Richland County Nov. 6 elections. Many people said they gave up the chance to vote because the long lines of up to five hours meant they had to get back to work or care for a child instead of waiting.

The hearing will not only spotlight McBride, who at $86,344 is one of the county’s top paid public officials, but also showcase the normally invisible legislative delegation, made up of the four state senators and 11 state representatives from Richland County.

The lawmakers are expected to grill McBride, whom they installed in office in 2011 and whose salary they set, as well as Elections Commission chair Liz Crum. Crum’s five-member board is also appointed by the delegation and oversees McBride’s department.

Jackson said that a lawsuit brought by Columbia resident William “Rusty” DePass and the S.C. Public Interest Foundation is not about the current election debacle.

The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the 2011 state law that established the Richland County Elections & Voter Registration office and does not concern the Nov. 6 election, Jackson said.

Earlier Sunday, delegation Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, said he was considering not attending today’s hearing because he, like Jackson and Sens. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, and John Courson, R-Richland, is a defendant in DePass’s lawsuit.

“We might need to cancel that meeting because of the lawsuit,” Scott said. “You don’t have a hearing if you have a lawsuit. If you get sued in the middle of doing something, you can’t do anything — you got to wait and get it cleared.”

Despite Scott’s concerns, other lawmakers want to go forward.

Courson, the Senate leader, praised Jackson for insisting on holding the meeting.

“The public needs to know what happened, how it happened, why it happened and how we can prevent this from ever happening again,” Courson said Sunday. “This is something that needs to be discussed.”

Courson said he especially wants to hear McBride’s explanation of why there weren’t sufficient numbers of machines at the county’s 124 precincts, why enough technicians weren’t available to fix broken machines promptly, as well as get the answers to numerous other questions.

Although some have urged that the delegation set aside time Monday for the public to speak, Jackson said that would result in an overly long hearing. Besides, many “horror stories” about five-hour waits in voting lines, broken down balloting machines and numerous people giving up their right to vote because they couldn’t wait for hours to vote have already been aired, he said. .

“The purpose of this meeting is to hear from (county Elections & Voter Registration office director) Lillian McBride and Elections Commission chair Liz Crum,” Jackson said.

“There is no way we can hear them if we take 100 testimonies from the public and hold a 10-hour public hearing. It could take that long without even hearing from Ms. McBride and Ms. Crum. The purpose of this hearing is to really get down to the bottom of what happened.”

Recently, Jackson said he sent an email to all delegation members, letting them know if they wanted to gather more information from constituents, they could hold a public hearing in their district.

Delegation staff would help make a record of comments at those meetings and make them part of the public record about what happened, Jackson said.

In a related matter, Scott said he still hasn’t heard from Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office about whether the delegation has the legal authority to fire McBride, should it decide it’s necessary to remove her. Scott said he’s been out of town since last week and it’s possible he has a letter at his office.

Courson said that at some point, he would like the delegation to discuss the possibility of turning the operation of McBride’s department over to the county. After all, he said, the county provides its $1.2 million budget and has sufficient numbers of legal and other staff to support it.

It wasn’t just voters who were inconvenienced on Nov. 6 — many of the 1,200-odd poll workers were too, Courson said.

“Some of them were there until the early morning hours,” he said.

Although voters won’t get a chance to speak directly at today’s hearing, their voices are likely to be heard.

Rep. Mia Butler Garrick sent a recent letter to constituents expressing concerns about the meeting being held in the middle of the day when most people are at work. She invited voters to email her their election day experiences and promised to share those stories during the hearing.

“I’ve got the same questions the general public has, honestly,” Garrick said. “We’re all searching for answers.”

Dixie Hicks, a Columbia resident who spent four hours in line at the Keenan Precinct at Sanders Middle School, wanted to attend the 1 p.m. hearing but said it is unlikely.

“Can I take my break, run down there, pay to park and stand there for 10 seconds before I have to turn around and leave to get back to work?” she asked.

But Hicks said she wants answers on why her precinct had so few voting machines and one of the few that were at the polling station was broken.

“Why do we have broken machines and where the hell were they?” she said.

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