RICHLAND COUNTY’S ELECTION MESS

More uncounted votes discovered

Find underscores how badly Richland election was botched

cleblanc@thestate.comDecember 2, 2012 

The lines moved slowly, Tuesday at Logan Elementary School while Rebeeca Betcher , a Poll Location Technician attempted to fix one of the three voting machines located in the school auditorium. "We asked for five but got three. Now two out of three are working now," says Poll Manager Heyward Hinton. "We seem to be having problems at many of the locations," says Betcher, who believes the problem is a dead battery. Election Day in Richland County.

KIM KIM FOSTER-TOBIN — kkfoster@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • Contact delegation members A Richland County legislator has asked for public input about the Nov. 6 election fiasco. Anyone with information should contact a member of the county’s legislative delegation, said Rep. James Smith. 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

Two days after Richland County election officials assured their bosses and the public that all votes had been counted, they learned that a voting machine from the Lincolnshire precinct, stored in a warehouse after the election, contained 27 uncounted votes.

The notice came not from keen-eyed election officials but from a USC computer science professor who analyzes elections and who happened to be a poll watcher at Lincolnshire, a precinct off Monticello Road north of I-20.

The analysis by professor Duncan Buell also found that in addition to the machine used by curbside voters at Lincolnshire, votes in six machines at six other precincts might not have been counted.

Buell said Saturday those additional precincts — Friarsgate 1, Harbison 2, Hopkins, Oak Pointe, Skyland and Spring Valley West — should be examined for what he calls “the Lincolnshire anomaly.”

The discovery came 10 days after the State Election Commission officially certified the county’s results from the Nov. 6 election.

It adds to new information that continues to build the case of how badly the Richland County voting office bungled the election.

An analysis by The State newspaper found that Elections & Voter Registration director Lillian McBride’s office signed some 17,700 new voters this year, the largest increase in the voter rolls of any county in South Carolina, according to figures from the State Election Commission.

That, by law, should have added 71 additional machines just to accommodate the increase this year.

There should have been 980 machines for Richland County’s total of 244,923 registered voters, because state law mandates one machine for every 250 registered voters.

But McBride and the county elections board say their best tally so far is that 627 machines were in the field on Election Day.

McBride, in her only public explanation last week of the fiasco, said her official recommendation called for 864 machines.

Attorney Steve Hamm, speaking for the county elections board, on Saturday confirmed Buell’s findings about Lincolnshire and the other precincts. But Hamm could not confirm the number of votes.

Still, Hamm said he stands by the official election outcomes.

“I continue to be satisfied that the certified vote results reflect the decisions of the voters of Richland County,” he said. “And I continue to believe that these issues ... will have no impact ... or change any election results.

“But that’s the purpose of this examination,” he said, referring to his hiring by the board to get to the bottom of the mess and to recommend solutions.

In another development Saturday, Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said he and others in the county’s legislative delegation have been advised by four precinct workers that they told McBride’s office well before Election Day that she was miscalculating the number of machines needed in the presidential election.

Smith called for anyone who has information about planning missteps to contact their House or Senate representative.

So far, two Republican members of the 15-person legislative delegation that hired McBride have publicly called on her to step down from her $89,124 post. Delegation chairman Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, has been her most staunch backer.

‘Lincolnshire anomaly’

Buell, who has a Ph.D. in mathematics and has analyzed S.C. elections for eight years, said he examined voting data the county provided the State Elections Commission.

The professor said he had seen a poll worker in Lincolnshire hustling the curbside machine back and forth to voters who are handicapped or infirm and cannot stand in long lines.

The poll worker’s diligence over a two-hour period caught Buell’s attention. The machine had not operated properly and poll workers summoned a technician, who Buell said took about two hours and 40 minutes to arrive.

Buell examined countywide election numbers last week from electronic data taken from each machine against a mysterious, handwritten, red list of machines that McBride said her staff misinterpreted as numbers of machines. Each voting machine has unique identifying codes. Computer cartridges in the machines track, among other things, the time each is opened or closed, the voters’ selections (without identifying the voters), and can be cross-checked.

Last week, during what was touted as a fact-finding hearing before the legislative delegation, McBride said that an unidentified staffer misunderstood her instructions on the 864 machines she authorized for the county’s 124 precincts. The staffer substituted what should have been extra voting cartridges, called personal electronic ballots, for machines, McBride said. The staffer used red ink to list what totaled to 576 machines.

Still, McBride told the delegation she believes that 627 or 628 actually were distributed, though she said her office was still checking. Even as the numbers continue to change, McBride told her bosses that the correct number of machines “is a matter of basic math.”

Buell, who might be hired to assist Hamm in his examination, said the curbside machine did not show up when he reviewed the data.

He said he notified some delegation members of his suspicions before the delegation hearing and told elections board chairwoman Liz Crum by email just after the hearing.

Crum and Cheryl Goodwin, the county elections office official responsible for maintaining and preparing the machines, found the missing computer flashcard at the machine warehouse Wednesday afternoon, Buell said.

The next morning, Crum informed Buell by telephone that 27 votes were in the cartridge, he said.

Crum, on Hamm’s advice, did not respond to The State’s efforts to reach her.

Hamm said Crum has recused herself from Monday’s election protest hearing because some members of her law firm were involved in the penny sales tax campaign. She stepped aside, Hamm said, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest in the already suspect election.

Rep. Joe McEachern, D-Richland, said he, too, has questions about the count in Lincolnshire, which is in his House district.

“We are questioning a machine they say had zero votes on it,” McEachern told The State Friday. “We know there was a good amount of people voting curbside. I was there at Lincolnshire precinct and we were witnessing ... it was the curbside machine.”

Hamm said Saturday he will work with Buell over the weekend to figure out what happened in the seven precincts. Hamm said he hopes to have answers by this Wednesday’s preliminary report to the elections board.

He said he does not know whether that report will be public or shared with the board behind closed doors.

Asked whether Buell’s findings would further erode public confidence in the outcome of the election, Hamm said, “I would hope ... the voters will say, ‘We’re glad they’re continuing to check.’ ”

Growing the voter base

State Elections Commission data show that Richland County ranked first among South Carolina’s 46 counties in the number of voters it added to the rolls this year.

A tally provided Friday by agency spokesman Chris Whitmire shows the county had 244,923 registered voters as of Nov. 2. That’s 17,692 more since early January, according to the figures. Before becoming elections director, McBride was head of the county’s voter registration office.

That total also means Richland outstripped No. 2 Charleston by 2,222 new voters and outpaced No. 3 Greenville by 4,465. Charleston added 15,470 new voters and Greenville added 13,227, the state’s figures show.

Since state law requires one voting machine for every 250 registered voters, Richland County would have needed 70.7 more machines just to manage the growth in the voter base.

McBride told the delegation she wanted 864 machines — which still would be 116 machines fewer than the law demands. The 628 machines that so far have been publicly accounted as being in the field falls 352 short of the legal requirement.

Officials have said that more than 100 of the county’s 970 machines remained in the storage warehouse on Election Day and that 45 of them were broken.

Jim Williams, who for 13 years was responsible for storing, maintaining and preparing the county’s machines for elections, has said he would never have accepted having nearly 50 machines remain unrepaired going into a general election.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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