COLUMBIA, SC — For years, except inside certain government circles, Richland County voter registration chief Lillian McBride was a little-known county public official.
In the past month, shes become a poster child for not only what critics say is gross mismanagement in running a county election but for how a government employee with powerful patrons can rise to command a huge salary and decline to answer questions from the public when something goes terribly wrong.
At the same time, her supporters who include local politicians, activists and even U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. decry what they say is a rush to judgment about McBride before all the facts about the missteps that took place in the countys Nov. 6 county election are known.
I have known Lillian McBride for as long as she has worked at the Richland County voter registration and elections offices, and her credentials and credibility have never been questioned until now, Clyburn said. She deserves the courtesy of a full review before judgment is made.
The so far untouchable McBride who makes $89,124 a year might become yet again the focus of attention when the county elections board meets at 4 p.m. today to discuss an attorneys preliminary findings on what went wrong Election Day. The board oversees McBrides office.
The countys legislative delegation is scheduled to meet today as well, at 11 a.m. Of the 15 delegation members, five have told The State they would vote, or be likely to vote no confidence in McBride, should such a vote be held today.
Other delegation members say they want to wait for Steven Hamm, the attorney hired by the County Election Commission, to finish at least his preliminary look into what went wrong Nov. 6.
I want to be fair. I dont know what Hamms going to say, said Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland.
On Nov. 6, Richland Countys 237,000 registered voters experienced one of the most bungled elections in modern state history. Hundreds if not thousands of residents were effectively denied the right to vote because of voting lines of three to five hours or more, broken voting machines and a shortage of voting machines. Somehow, McBrides office had failed to distribute anywhere near the legally mandated number of voting machines required to carry out an efficient election. Meanwhile, some 200 voting machines were left in warehouses.
Then, hundreds of ballots went missing and wound up not being counted in the initial tally. And after the state certified the countys results a week after that of all other counties, 27 more votes were found on a machine in storage.
While such bungles might seem evidence enough that McBride ought to go, a majority of the legislative delegation appears, like Neal, to be urging people to wait.
McBrides seemingly staunchest protector in public has been state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, the delegations chairman.
Citing legal advice, Jackson has urged her not to talk publicly since Nov. 6. And, also citing legal advice, he diverted pointed questions during a legislative hearing Nov. 26.
Jackson said some have erroneously called him a supporter of McBride, as if he has already made up his mind on her.
Do I support Lillian McBride? I support her as a nice person who has worked really hard for 20 years, trying to send her daughter to college. I would support anybody in that position as a person. But I am reserving a decision on what to do about her situation until we get the facts in Steve Hamms report.
Jackson might play less of a leadership role than he has in the past month. Today, delegation members are slated to elect a new chairman. The chair rotates between House and Senate members for two-year terms, and Jacksons term is up. Neal is said to be the leading candidate for the job.
However, Jackson is considering staying in his post for another month or two, should members agree, he told The State on Wednesday.
There are some who have suggested I stay on as chairman to see this elections process through. I havent decided yet, Jackson said.
The reason he would want to say on, he said, is because Im not a quitter. I want to see it resolved. I want to be a part of the solution to fix this.
Neal declined comment for this story on whether he is a candidate. But he did say about Jackson, I dont understand what it is he thinks he could do if he stayed.
For years, McBride labored in obscurity, running a small office that kept the rolls of Richland County voters and registered thousands.
Along the way, she attracted supporters like Lonnie Randolph, president of the S.C. NAACP, who praises her for having an effective voter registration outreach. Randolph now criticizes local media for inflaming the public about McBride.
No crime has been committed there were some errors made, Randolph said. I just think shes being unfairly treated until the investigation is finished.
Another supporter, former state Sen. Kay Patterson, D-Richland, about six years ago went before the Richland County Council to ask members to raise McBrides salary.
Patterson wanted McBride to get roughly the same salary as Mike Cinnamon, who, in the roughly co-equal office of running county elections, was making in the mid-$60,000s. McBride made in the low $50,000s.
Those in voter registration were kind of like stepchildren, Patterson said, She was doing an excellent job.
McBrides salary was eventually brought up to Cinnamons level. Then, in 2011, the delegation got a state law passed combining Cinnamons and McBrides offices.
The lawmakers effectively fired Cinnamon and installed McBride as director of both offices without advertising the position. The delegation also hiked her salary to $85,000 to match the average pay for elections directors in the states other two largest counties, Greenville and Charleston. But those directors were far more experienced than McBride, a State newspaper comparison has shown.
Since assuming office in July 2011, McBride has gotten more pay raises and now makes $89,124 just about $1,000 less than State Election Commission director Marci Andino.
QUESTIONS STILL UNANSWERED
• 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?
• Why werent the legally mandated number of machines in the countys 124 precincts?
• How many voting machines were at each of the countys precincts? What was the allocation plan based on?
• Who misunderstood director Lillian McBrides tally of the number of machines she said would be needed and why was the mistake not caught before Nov. 6?
• Why did machines at precincts not work? How many didnt work and where were they?
• How many emergency machines were deployed and where? Which precincts received emergency technicians help?
• How did two styles of paper absentee ballots get printed, causing major problems in counting those ballots?
• What exactly has McBrides Elections & Voter Registration office done to be sure her now-acknowledged mistakes dont happen again?
Richland Countys Elections & Voter Registration board meets today to hear a preliminary report on what went wrong Election Day. The report is being compiled by attorney Steve Hamm, who was hired by the board as votes were being counted.
Its not clear if the report will be made public. That decision is up to board members.