Richland County election director long-awaited explanation leaves questions unanswered

cleblanc@thestate.comNovember 27, 2012 

Richland County Elections Director Lillian McBride address the Richland County legislative delegation during a hearing about what went wrong in the Nov. 6 Richland County elections.

C. ALUKA BERRY — Buy Photo

— Richland County’s embattled elections director, after three weeks of public silence, had no answers Monday to many of the hard questions surrounding the Nov. 6 botched election.

Instead, Lillian McBride relied on a prepared written statement that referred to “unique difficulties,” referred key questions to others, disclosed a mystery person who she said misinterpreted her instructions or repeatedly said she did not yet have answers.

McBride’s comments came 21 days after a balloting mess that has prompted lawsuits, intervention by a circuit court and the state’s highest court, triggered election protests and still brings howls from outraged voters.

Monday, a largely deferential legislative delegation that hired McBride 11/2 years ago often interjected to some of the more pointed questions, helping McBride to respond or offering counterpoints that she is being made a scapegoat.

Most of that assistance came from delegation chairman Sen. Darrell Jackson, who set the tone for the hearing by asking McBride to dismiss several “conspiracy theories.” Jackson equated those who believe such theories as “people who still believe Elvis is alive and that Barack Obama is preparing for a third term.”

Jackson asked her if she was related to former convicted State Rep. Frank McBride. Lillian McBride said she was not.

He asked her whether she tilted the election toward approval of the penny sales tax. She said no.

And he asked her whether any member of the delegation has a relationship with her office. Again, McBride said no.

However, Jackson characterized the mistakes made by her office as “human error” and said he stands by her as competent to keep her $86,344 job.

No one questioned McBride’s abilities when she successfully oversaw the GOP presidential primary and other smaller elections, Jackson said. “When did she become incompetent?

“I wouldn’t call that incompetence,” Jackson said. “I would call that a mistake.”

His remarks brought supportive responses and occasional applause from some in the packed State House committee room.

After McBride’s limited responses, these central questions remain unanswered:

•  Why didn’t her office have the legally mandated number of machines in the county’s 124 precincts? McBride now acknowledges there were insufficient machines after insisting on Election Night there were enough even as complaints piled up and lines extended hours beyond the normal 7 p.m. poll-closing time.

•  Who specifically was responsible for the debacle that forced some voters to wait in line for up to seven hours or to give up without exercising their constitutional rights?

•  Who misunderstood McBride’s tally of the number of machines she said would be needed and why was the mistake not caught before Nov. 6?

•  What exactly has McBride’s Elections & Voter Registration office done to be sure her now-acknowledged mistakes don’t happen again?

McBride kept a calm disposition throughout the arduous hearing and apologized several times.

In a prepared statement she read to the delegation, McBride said, “I was horrified at the problems.

“I want to publicly acknowledge that there were unique difficulties here in Richland County because of mistakes made within my office,” she said. “For that, I am humbly sorry.

“We also will have our planned post-election meeting of all the staff ... which will provide us a clearer picture of everything that went wrong and what we need to do to make sure those problems do no happen again.”

It remains in question how many machines were in precincts in the county’s 124 precincts. Rep. James Smith said that by his calculation, 628 machines were in the field. However, although McBride said she generally agreed with that figure, she did not want to confirm that figure until her own review is complete.

McBride explained that she created another list of voting cartridges, called Personal Electronic Ballot activation devices, she wanted distributed to each precinct. But someone misconstrued the added cartridges for a separate, updated list of numbers of machines, McBride told the delegation. On Monday, she did not produce her list of extra cartridges but released one with the handwritten numbers in red ink.

No one caught the mistake before Election Day, McBride said.

Perhaps the most pointed questions to McBride from the 14 members of the delegation who attended Monday’s 3-hour and 20-minute hearing came from two-term Democratic Rep. Mia Butler Garrick.

“I have not seen any evidence of us holding you accountable, of you holding yourself accountable,” the House District 79 representative said about 23/4 hours into the discussion.

“I’m at a loss of how that possibly could restore the public’s confidence (in the election process),” said Garrick, the owner of a Columbia communications firm and a former director of the state Office of Victim Assistance under then-Gov. Jim Hodges.

Garrick also pressed McBride for which election data from prior elections was not left for her by Mike Cinnamon, her predecessor who ran Richland County elections for nearly 40 years.

The legislator argued that the number of registered voters, the number of machines and data about the comparable 2008 presidential race all were publicly available even without the internal information that McBride said was missing, Garrick said.

“We had the information we needed to conduct the 2012 presidential election,” Garrick said. “Basically, there is no justification for not having the right amount of machines.”

That drew a response from departing county election board chairwoman Liz Crum.

“I’m sorry we don’t have all the answers, Representative Garrick, but we’re trying.”

Sen. Jackson reminded the delegation that he offered to delay Monday’s hearing until all the facts had been gathered, but some members pressed to move ahead.

Rep. Leon Howard said some delegation members, whom he did not name, had been “playing to the press.”

Rep. Todd Rutherford asked McBride who might have had access to her list of machines to be placed in polls so that person could then use the pen to add a column by each precinct.

Rutherford said it came down to two people. McBride said she and her staff are looking further into that but did not say whether disciplinary action might follow.

The delegation said they would take up that issue at its next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 6.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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