Richland County Election Mess

Richland County elections director acknowledges ‘the mistakes that were made;’ blames others

Fact-finding hearing offers no option for future elections

jmonk@thestate.comNovember 27, 2012 

  • Richland County’s election mess: Still unanswered questions A nearly 3 1/2 hour hearing left unanswered several key questions about what went wrong in the Nov. 6 election, overseen by elections director Lillian McBride. • Why didn’t McBride’s office have the legally mandated number of machines in the county’s 124 precincts? • 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 at each precinct, and why was the mistake not caught before Election Day? • What exactly has McBride’s Elections & Voter Registration Office done to ensure such mistakes don’t happen again?

— An unidentified elections office staffer misread numbers on a spreadsheet, an error that resulted in a shortage of machines and vote-tallying devices in many of Richland County’s 124 precincts, elections director Lillian McBride said Monday.

McBride’s explanation for why there were not enough machines came during a 3 1/2-hour hearing, called by the Richland County legislative delegation that oversees her, to gather facts about problems that led to one of the biggest election debacles in recent state history.

“It was a mistake and it had drastic consequences,” McBride said of the incorrect spreadsheet numbers.

While billed a fact-finding hearing, McBride, along with Elections Commission chair Liz Crum, provided few new facts during Monday’s public session, watched by a standing-room-only crowd of media, county residents and political leaders in a Senate office room.

Instead, McBride repeatedly told lawmakers seeking details that she was still investigating what went wrong during the elections and offered no concrete ideas on how to make sure the problems wouldn’t happen in future elections.

That didn’t sit well with some delegation members.

“We’re here 20 days later and there’s no plan,” said Rep. Mia Butler Garrick.

Delegation leaders will meet again Dec. 6, when more facts may surface about why some voters waited up to seven hours to cast ballots, countless others left before being able to vote and a final tally was not available until roughly a week later.

In any case, Crum said her election commission will give a full written report on all election errors, including who was responsible, by late December. That’s nearly two months after the Nov. 6 election. Commission lawyer Steven Hamm said he will check information McBride gives him to verify its accuracy.

McBride acknowledged there were too few voting machines on Election Day. She also could not provide details about why so many of Richland’s machines failed, when other counties did not experience problems of the same magnitude. She said machines were tested.

But one of the biggest unanswered questions Monday surrounded the mystery staffer who allegedly misread spreadsheets, mistaking the number of voting cartridges, called Personal Electronic Ballot activation devices, for the number of voting machines needed for each precinct. One voting cartridge can service several machines.

The staffer apparently inverted the number of machines needed with the number of cartridges needed, resulting in far fewer machines delivered to each precinct.

“Who was that employee?” asked Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland.

McBride — supported by delegation chair Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland — refused to answer.

“That’s a probing question,” said Jackson, who also instructed McBride to remain silent in the nearly three weeks leading up to Monday’s hearing.

McBride said, “I acknowledge the mistakes that were made, and I offer a complete and humble apology for the problems voters faced on Nov. 6.”

Only under direct questioning by Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, did McBride accept any responsibility for any of the election missteps.

“As director, whose responsibility was it to make sure there were enough machines in each precinct?” Smith asked.

McBride answered, “It was my responsibility.”

It was all part of a hearing by the county legislative delegation that was supposed to elicit from McBride a full accounting of what went wrong and who was responsible for it. Four state senators and nine representatives attended. Only newly elected Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, whose House race sparked a brief court battle, did not attend because of scheduled travel.

“Our job in this meeting is to get to the facts of what happened, why it happened and what can be done to ensure this does not happen again,” Jackson said at the beginning of the meeting.

Instead McBride and Crum repeatedly told lawmakers who pressed for details they are still investigating what went wrong.

McBride said her office is surveying the clerks at the county’s 124 precincts but has not yet gotten all the results back yet. She also is gathering information from staff who fielded calls on Election day and technicians who worked on machines that day, she said.

Under questioning by Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, McBride acknowledged twice that there were probably 628 working machines in the field Election Day, she said, but wanted to await results of her ow review before confirming the exact number. Using state calculations, at least 940 machines should have been deployed. The county has at least that many; many were inexplicably left in a warehouse on Election Day.

McBride placed some blame on errors with former county elections director Mike Cinnamon, who left office in 2011, alleging he deleted vital information from his computer that would have helped estimate the number of machines needed at each precinct.

However, that deleted information — which can be used to project how many voting machines are needed at each precinct — was retrieved by county information technicians and was available to McBride, Crum told lawmakers.

Cinnamon, who attended Monday’s hearing, declined comment.

Moreover, that information — even though deleted — was easily available at the State Election Commission. The missing information specifically concerned 2008 voter turnout in that year’s presidential election at each county precinct.

“We can tell you how many people voted at every precinct going back 20 years,” State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said late Monday. Whitmire also said it’s not difficult to either find out or estimate how many machines would have been needed at each precinct.

Garrick said she couldn’t understand why McBride couldn’t give a simple explanation for the election failures nearly three weeks after the election..

“My district, from your numbers, required close to 100 machines and it looks like a little over 50 were deployed — I still don’t know why,” Garrick said.

McBride the process has been dragged out because of legal challenges and the need to be certain. “I don’t want to give you inaccurate information.”

Garrick concluded, “Who should the delegation hold responsible for what happened?”

McBride answered, “That is for the delegation to answer.”

Neal also questioned McBride about battery failures in machines.

“As soon as we find out, we will let you know,” McBride said.

Other issues discussed at Monday’s hearing by delegation members included whether precincts are too large for efficient voting and whether county voting machines are reliable enough.

Despite the numerous problems, Crum assured delegation members that the election commission spent days verifying election results.

McBride and Crum both maintain every vote was counted, and the election results are accurate. A lawsuit has been filed calling for new elections.

Among the 70-plus people in Monday’s audience were Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore, a top federal government prosecutor in the Columbia office, who brought an FBI agent with him. The two declined comment about what they had heard during the hearing.

Also present was Richland County Treasurer David Adams.

“I was disappointed we didn’t get more answers,” said Adams, who was elected in 2002. “This is a major issue with people, and it affects nearly everyone in the county. The more time that goes by, the more public confidence erodes.”

Election Precincts

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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