COLUMBIA, SC — Election Day data does not support suspicions that voting machines were distributed last month in a manner designed to sway the disputed penny sales tax referendum.
A preliminary analysis by a USC computer science professor found that 89 of Richland Countys 124 precincts nearly 72 percent received fewer machines than they did two years ago when the referendum failed by 2,200 votes. Nine precincts got more machines. The balance received the same number of machines.
But the data show the ratio of fewer machines last month is about equally divided between precincts that backed the sales tax increase in 2010 (49) compared with those that opposed it (40). The referendum won by 6,600 votes this time.
USCs Duncan Buell said those numbers are not statistically persuasive of an intent to influence the outcome, as some critics have alleged.
It does not, to me, suggest there was a statistical imbalance, Buell said of the distribution of machines. There are more precincts that voted for the sales tax (in 2010) that got fewer machines than there were precincts against it that got fewer.
There is nothing obvious to me, he said, adding that it remains unclear for sure whether all votes have been counted. It was Buell who discovered a voting machine flashcard from the Lincolnshire precinct apparently had not been counted, even after the much-delayed and scrutinized balloting had been certified by the county and the State Election Commission. The Lincolnshire computer cartridge had 27 votes on it and six other precincts showed no voting information for machines that, according to statements by elections director Lillian McBride, were delivered, Buell said.
He conducted his penny sales tax analysis at the request at The State newspaper.
The county Board of Elections and Voter Registration on Monday rejected a protest of the one-cent increase in the sales tax, which was approved by 52 percent of voters.
Sen. John Courson, R-Richland and the leader of the state Senate, said Monday that Buells analysis settles one of the key questions that have hung over the tangled election.
I think this proves (that distribution of machines) was not in any way geared to influence any partisan election that was on the ballot or the penny sales tax, said Courson, who has publicly called for elections director Lillian McBride to step down.
I have complete confidence in Doctor Buell, he said.
Efforts Monday to reach Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, McBrides most outspoken supporter, were unsuccessful. Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, said he would not respond to Buells findings because he has not seen the analysis.
Courson, president pro tem of the Senate, said he plans to file a bill later this month that would transfer full control of elections to the county. Under current law, the legislative delegation selected McBride and wrote the law with language that sought to insulate her from being fired by the county elections board.
But the state Attorney General recently issued an opinion saying the board has the power to dismiss her. The board voted last week to accept that opinion, though it has not acted.
Michael Letts, who filed the penny sales tax protest and raised the specter of election bias in public comments, said he does not agree with Buells analysis.
It doesnt settle the question because we cannot get at who ordered (the distribution of machines) and what was the intent, Letts said.
Further, he said, its unclear which precincts requested more machines and were denied or why they were denied.
Letts would like a criminal investigation that would allow authorities to put witnesses under oath. Letts complains that his requests for such a probe have gone unanswered.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.