State officials are drawing plans to create more voting precincts as a result of Richland Countys Election Day fiasco that left thousands in line for hours and disenfranchised uncounted others.
Almost 63 percent or 78 of the countys 124 precincts are larger than the long-ignored state standard of 1,500 registered voters per precinct. Of those 78 oversize precincts, 32 exceed the standard by more than 1,000 voters, according to the state office of research, which advises state and local authorities on voting data and voting districts.
The countys largest precinct, Parkway No. 1, with 5,529 registered voters, is 4,029 beyond the standard. Voters there cast ballots at Summit Parkway Middle School.
Bobby Bowers, who leads the research and statistics division of the State Budget and Control Board, said Tuesday that members of legislative delegations from Richland and Florence counties have asked that he draft bills to be introduced next month when the Legislature convenes.
Were just trying to split some of these big precincts, Bowers said Tuesday. This has bubbled up since this (Richland County) thing came up.
In Florence County, 10 of its 63 precincts have 2,000 or more registered voters, according to state election data. The largest, Savannah Grove and Ebenezer 1, have 3,492 and 3,216 voters, respectively.
Bowers expects other large or fast-growing counties such as Charleston, Greenville, Spartanburg and Beaufort to seek to break up oversize precincts. Lawmakers and state and local election officials have for years ignored the 1970 law that set the 1,500 per-voter standard, Bowers and others said.
But the flip side of the Legislature approving more precincts is the price tag and the financial strain that would put on county councils.
Richland County Council vice chairman Greg Pearce said council would have few options: dip into the countys $30-plus million reserve fund, borrow the money through publicly backed bonds or, possibly, increase taxes.
At this point I would not venture to say how much this would cost, Pearce said. I dont have a clue whether were talking a million dollars or five million. How painful that would be is a story yet to be told.
Pearce said his first question would be how many more voting machines, which can cost $3,000 to $3,500, would be required to accommodate voters in the new precincts. State law requires one machine for every 250 voters.
Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said he asked Bowers for help on drafting a bill. Jackson said the delegation would have to meet with County Council to say to them, This comes with a price tag.
Adding precincts also would have to be approved by the U.S. Justice Departments Civil Rights division under the Voting Rights Act, Jackson said.
Senate president pro tem John Courson, R-Richland, said he supports, in principle, more precincts to ease voter lines.
I would like to see the cost of doing it, Courson said.
Bowers said its undecided whether the bill would adopt the statutory 1,500 voter standard, which he said was written when everyone voted by paper ballot. Jackson said he would like to work from that benchmark, though hes open to a new standard.
If the Legislature adopts the 1,500 voter standard, Richland County would need 162 precincts, an increase of 38 precincts from the current 124, according to Bowers office.
Bowers said the bill will address the largest precincts first, many of which are in Northeast Richland. For example, the Polo Road precinct exceeds the standard by 3,317 voters; Ridge View by 3,267 voters; Estates precinct, which votes at Bookman Road Elementary School, by 2,970 voters.
I suggest we start with the low-hanging fruit and work our way up, Bowers said.
Deciding on numbers of precincts depends on more than just registered voters.
Some precincts can easily manage 3,000. Some cant manage 300 because of the lack of parking spaces, Bowers said.
The availability of a large-enough building with suitable parking is a factor, as is finding places in residential areas, which have many cul de sacs and are difficult to navigate by car.
Hiring and training enough poll workers and machine technicians to service them also cost money and take time.
Its very lengthy and time-consuming, Bowers said of determining the proper number of precincts.
The state cannot force local governments to pick up the tab, Bowers said. Theyre autonomous from the state. Its going to be up to each county to do the best they can to adhere (to whatever changes the Legislature makes).
Bowers said the depth of Richlands voting troubles has stirred interest in finding ways to speed waiting times. Weve had a few problems, but nothing like this.
Now weve got a lot of interest in the rest of the state, too, Bowers said.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.