Poll managers dispute director, say they warned early about too few machines

cleblanc@thestate.comDecember 9, 2012 

Four veteran precinct managers are disputing Richland County elections director Lillian McBride’s assertions that she had no prior notice of voting machine shortages.

Managers from Wards 11, 16, 33 and the Pontiac precinct told The State newspaper that they told elections office staffers in the days leading up to Nov. 6 that they had too few voting machines.

One of them said he warned the office of long voting lines as early as September.

The precinct captains said they were concerned about dealing with heavy turnout in a presidential election year and worried they were allocated fewer machines than in previous elections.

On the advice of attorneys and the county’s legislative delegation chairman Sen. Darrell Jackson, McBride is not speaking publicly or answering reporters’ questions.

But under questioning by some delegation members Nov. 26, McBride said she had determined the county needed 864 machines and that someone in her office, who has yet to be publicly identified, revised that number downward.

McBride also told lawmakers she did not know ahead of time that too few machines had been distributed to the county’s 124 precincts for Election Day.

“That is a huge lie. I complained ahead of time,” said Betty Jones, who has been a poll worker at Ward 16’s Dreher High School for 17 years, serving as supervising poll manager for the past 10.

Jones said she watched television coverage of the legislative hearing into Election Day problems and was taken aback by McBride’s remarks.

Jones said she called the elections office Nov. 2 to ask for Dreher’s usual five machines instead of the three that had been delivered and got a call back on election eve. The caller from the elections office – she wasn’t sure who it was – rejected her call for help, Jones said.

“She said they had calculated the number of machines and, ‘Your three fall within the guideline,’ ” Jones said. “I realized we were doomed,” she said she thought to herself.

The woman did not explain the guideline but told Jones if it turned out three was too few, she could request more machines on Election Day, Jones said.

Michael Sullivan, captain of Ward 11, which votes at the Ben Arnold Boys and Girls Club in Rosewood, is telling anyone who will listen that he asked for more machines several times.

He released to media outlets an email he sent to McBride’s precinct coordinator, Becky Brown, on Sept. 27 – 39 days before the fiasco.

“Did I understand correctly that we are getting just 3 for this November?” he wrote. “We had 4 and 5 machines for the primaries this year. ... it would seem we might run into very long lines with even fewer machines for this election.”

Brown declined his request, but her response was not in writing, Sullivan said. “It was a verbal exchange. It would be her word against mine.”

Sullivan said he also requested additional machines during an Oct. 5 training session for poll managers conducted by McBride’s office. He didn’t get them.

Barbara Garrett is precinct manager at Pontiac. She can’t recall exactly when she telephoned McBride’s office. But she estimates it was about two weeks before the election because that’s when she noticed that four machines had been delivered to the precinct at Pontiac Elementary School, where Garrett teaches.

“I called the voter registration office,” Garrett said. “I don’t know who exactly I talked to. I said, ‘Four won’t do.’

“She said that would be enough and if they didn’t do, I could call (on Election Day).” On Election Day, she said, “The phone was busy.”

Frank Sarnowski is precinct manager at Ward 33, whose residents vote at Martin Luther King Park.

Sarnowski said he went to the elections office on the Friday before the election to complain that his precinct had been delivered three machines instead of the usual five.

He said he spoke to a receptionist. “She said, ‘That’s all that’s available at this time.’

“I did say we need at least four. Five would be better,” Sarnowski recalled.

On Election Day, the precinct captains’ fears came to pass. County voters stood in long lines, some waiting six or seven hours. An uncounted number left without voting.

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

Attorney Steve Hamm, hired by the county elections board to determine what went wrong Nov. 6, said in a preliminary report issued Thursday that there were about 627 machines in the field on Election Day.

In the aftermath of the debacle, Sullivan has said he will give up volunteering to work the polls in Richland County as long as McBride remains director.

Jones, who estimates she has worked in precincts for 25 years, is just saddened.

“My confidence in the whole election process has been strained,” said the Ward 16 precinct captain. “I’m kind of disheartened right now.”

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

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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