RICHLAND COUNTY, SC —
Read full report at bottom of story
Richland Countys election meltdown was a system failure by top election officials, including director Lillian McBride and the board that oversees the office, according to a preliminary report released Thursday.
A series of unfortunate assumptions ... led us astray on Nov. 6, is how attorney Steve Hamm summed up his assessment 30 days after the electoral fiasco widely considered among the states worst.
The election hit an iceberg, and nobody noticed up to and including the election, Hamm said as part of a 29-page, hour-long report that still leaves key questions unanswered.
Nobody was asking the fundamental questions, he told the public and the Board of Elections & Voter Registration in the widely anticipated initial report delivered during a specially called board meeting at the county administration building.
Hamm assigned most of the blame for the drastic shortage of voting machines to McBride, saying that ultimately, the issue of delivering the correct number of voting machines to each precinct was the responsibility of the director ...
There were signs (of trouble) out there as early as the summer, he said.
Hamm repeatedly said that McBride, her staff and the board failed to catch obvious problems.
Neither Hamm nor the board, which hired him, called for disciplinary action against anyone.
McBride, 16 months into her new role as the supervisor of elections, should not have delegated important decisions, Hamm said. That includes allowing a subordinate to give a part-time employee, who remains unnamed publicly, responsibility for determining the number of voting machines distributed to the countys 124 precincts.
McBride also did not have a clear or formal checklist to follow in preparing for her first presidential election, which drew 160,111 voters on a chilly morning. Some waited as long as seven hours to cast their ballots, and untold numbers gave up without exercising their constitutional right.
The ensuing mess led to legal challenges, election protests and a general lack of confidence in Richland County elections. Votes have been certified, but it remains unclear if that total is accurate. Still, election officials and Hamm assert that no outcomes would change.
McBride, who has been a lightning rod for criticism, attended the meeting. Afterward, asked if she felt exonerated by Hamms conclusion that others shared the blame, McBride said No, quickly followed by No comment.
She would not elaborate and has remained silent since election night. She spoke publicly only during her roundly criticized statements to the legislative delegation on Nov. 26 in which she apologized but laid blame on others, including her predecessor, Mike Cinnamon.
Among new information Hamm released:
• 102 votes in the Spring Valley West precinct still may be uncounted. He is investigating further, but Hamm said hes convinced those have not been counted.
• He corroborated reports last week that 27 votes in a curbside machine used at the Lincolnshire precinct had not been counted.
• A machine assigned to the Sandlapper precinct may or may not still contain votes.
Hamm has identified and interviewed the male staffer who used red ink to mistakenly change McBrides figures on a chart of the number of machines designated for each precinct. That staffer told Hamm he had a document showing he acted on McBrides instructions but has not produced it.
Hamm said he does not believe the staffers assertions, but added, I am suggesting no ill will.
He said Richland Countys personnel rules prohibit him from disclosing that persons name.
Problems with machine batteries were caused in part by workers who did not plug them back in to recharge them when they were unplugged to be used for curbside voting.
• It remains unclear how many machines actually were used, but its about 627.
McBride and her staff initially followed proper procedures including her calculation that 864 machines would be sufficient, Hamm said.
Yet Hamm also said McBride did not properly account for the some 17,700 new voters her office registered during this year. He said that would have added about 70 more machines.
After interviewing all the people in McBrides office, Hamm said they acknowledged their failings.
The refrain he heard most was, Steve, I dont know why it didnt occur to me. But it didnt.
Hamm commended McBride and her office for properly preparing for the election during the summer, even though he said the first signs of trouble came during that time.
Poll workers and machine technicians were trained, he said. Machines got the appropriate amount of work performed on them during initial stages. Hamm said he found no mistakes in those early preparations.
When McBrides calculation of 864 machines was changed, some staffer should have said, Wait a minute. How is it were using 605 machines? Hamm said.
When it came to Election Day, however, an undetermined number of machines were not ready for a full day of use by voters, especially when polls opened at 7 a.m. The largest number of operating machines occurred at 4 p.m., he said.
Hamms report cited the number 627 for the total number of machines in polling places. But in his presentation he said the number could be 628 or 629.
He stressed the county owned 958 voting machines, more than 900 of which were in working condition and able to be deployed to the 124 precincts.
We had sufficient machines in operating condition to have addressed the election on Nov. 6 but for a series of unfortunate assumptions, Hamm said.
In an interview after the meeting, he confirmed that long before the election, at least several precinct managers had told McBride and her staff they didnt have enough machines.
Finding out why she and her staff failed to act after they were warned of looming machine shortages will be a priority to investigate in his final report, Hamm said.
He also said the final report will address McBrides complaints that Cinnamon failed to leave her an election blueprint. Cinnamon has said he left behind sufficient guidance.
Hamm said he wonders why McBride didnt just pick up the telephone and call experienced elections directors in other counties and ask for their checklists and timetables for distribution of machines.
Turning to the board, Hamm said, These good people should have asked, All right, director, how many machines are you using and how did you determine that number?
The board, if they had asked the appropriate questions, ... then a large light would have gone off in the mind of the director, Hamm said referring to McBride.
The board should have been asking questions and expecting detailed reports in the months leading up to the election.
Like McBride, board members are appointed by the countys legislative delegation. They are legally charged with supervising elections.
After Hamm presented his report, elections board chairwoman Liz Crum admitted she and her board were responsible for not thoroughly checking with McBride in the weeks and months leading up to the election.
Thats something I should have done, Crum said. We had a duty to exercise due diligence. We did not do that as well as we should have.
But, Crum said, she never dreamed that McBride would fail to do something so simple as to make sure adequate numbers of machines were deployed.
Quite frankly, it would never have occurred to me we wouldnt have enough (machines) because it is elementary, she said. You put out one machine for every 250 voters. It is basic math. That formula is mandated by state law.
Until Nov. 26 when a state attorney generals opinion clarified the issue, the board operated under an interpretation of the law creating McBrides office that it had no power to fire her or her staff. The board now has adopted the opinion that gives it authority over her $89,124 position, which apparently makes McBride the states most highly paid county election director.
Acknowledging frustrated voters who ask when his final report and a final vote tally would be ready, Hamm said: Just how long does it take to get this stuff straight? Its going to take as long as it takes.
He said he knows important questions remain unanswered. Hamm said his final report will address those issues and will include suggestions on ways to improve the election process.
Read the Report
Revised (12-7-12) Initial and Limited Report on the Richland County Nov. 6 2012 General Election
Statement from Steve Hamm's office accompanying revision: "Following the preparation of the document provided yesterday to the Richland County Board of Election and Voter Registration by Steve Hamm, a few typographical errors were discovered in Exhibit D. These were typos that occurred in this office (not the election office). Attached is Revised Exhibit D." The embedded document includes the revised Exhibit D
Staff writer John Monk contributed to this article. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.