RICHLAND COUNTY’S ELECTION MESS

Is McBride stepping down?

Elections chief’s attorney tells lawmakers she plans to leave

jmonk@thestate.comDecember 20, 2012 

Richland County Elections Director Lillian McBride address the Richland County legislative delegation during a hearing about what went wrong in the Nov. 6 Richland County elections.

C. ALUKA BERRY — caberry@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • An election gone wrong Nov. 6: People stand in line to vote, many for four or five hours – some for seven. Many leave without voting. Voters complain of too few machines. Nov. 7: Preliminary results are posted in the afternoon, but absentee ballots cause a dispute in the House 75 race and a lawsuit is filed. County elections director Lillian McBride, appointed by the county’s legislative delegation, will not talk to reporters. Nov. 8: Precinct managers tell The State newspaper the county broke the law by not having one voting machine for every 250 registered voters. Nov. 14: Eight days after the election, the initial counting resumes as ordered by the Supreme Court after a circuit court judge asks the State Election Commission to count the votes instead. Vote totals come just after 11 p.m. following a marathon 11-hour counting session in which McBride did not take part. The biggest delay was caused by paper absentee ballots that weren’t being properly read by a ballot-counting machine. Nov. 15: About 150 uncounted ballots are found in two bags at the election office in the morning; 44 more in the afternoon. The ballots did not alter the outcome of any races or the penny referendum. Nov. 19: The State Election Commission certifies the county’s results, 13 days after voters cast ballots. Nov. 26: The legislative delegation holds a hearing on what went wrong. McBride says people in her office made mistakes, but Sen. Darrell Jackson stops her from being specific. The state attorney general’s office, meanwhile, says the board, not lawmakers, have the power to decide whether to fire McBride. Dec. 4: Election Day data do not support suspicions that voting machines were distributed to precincts in a way designed to sway the disputed penny sales tax referendum, USC computer science professor Duncan Buell tells The State. Dec. 6: Attorney Steve Hamm, hired by the county election board to investigate, says McBride, her top staffers and election board members were all to blame. A part-time employee claimed McBride revised the number of voting machines needed down to 605 from 864, Hamm says. He says he found no evidence McBride changed the number but says that delivering the correct number of machines to each precinct is McBride’s responsibility. Hamm also says the county needed 980 machines, by law, on Nov. 6. He determines that about 577 were distributed to precincts by Election Day morning and that about 50 were delivered during the day, for a total of about 627. Dec. 9: The State reports that four veteran precinct managers dispute McBride’s assertions that she had no prior notice of voting machine shortages, saying they complained in advance to her office. Dec. 17: The State reports that McBride’s office used turnout from previous elections – rather than the number of registered voters – to help decide the number of voting machines distributed to precincts on Election Day, according to two poll managers and a machine technician. Dec. 18: County elections board chairwoman Liz Crum resigns after the board took no disciplinary action against McBride following a two-hour, closed-door meeting. In her resignation letter, Crum says McBride, too, should resign. Dec. 19: The State newspaper reports that 9 of 16 delegation members now say McBride should step down or that they had no confidence in her ability to run an election.

— Minutes before the Richland County Legislative Delegation might have taken a vote of “no confidence” Wednesday on embattled county elections director Lillian McBride, a lawyer for McBride told lawmakers she will step down in January, according to a Richland County lawmaker.

Her lawyer, John Nichols of Columbia, told the lawmakers about McBride’s intentions in an executive session closed to reporters, said Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland.

Rutherford, who left the meeting early, made his comment to reporters as he left the meeting, held at the Gressette Senate office building on State House grounds.

Rutherford also said discussions were underway to find McBride another job, possibly returning her to her old post as chief of county voter registration, “something I understand she was quite good at.”

Reporters then tweeted the news out and filed dispatches to their news organizations’ Internet sites to the effect that McBride was resigning from her $89,124-a-year post.

Ten minutes later, delegation members — more than a dozen state senators and representatives — left their closed-door meeting, refusing all comment about what transpired.

McBride’s lawyer, Nichols, hurried from the meeting, also declining comment. “I have to speak with my client,” he said.

An hour later, McBride — who for weeks has refused to speak to reporters about the bungled Nov. 6 county election — put out a press release. It said:

“Dear valued members of the press: This is to inform you that I have not submitted my resignation to the Board of Elections and Voter Registration or to the members of the Richland County Legislative Delegation. Any discussion of this is entirely premature and erroneous.”

Reached later, Rutherford said there was no real conflict between his statement and her statement.

“She is technically correct. She hasn’t resigned yet. But she will resign on Jan. 8 — that’s what we were told,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford said McBride wouldn’t submit her resignation to the delegation. The resignation would go to the county Board of Elections & Voter Registration, the citizen panel appointed by the lawmakers that oversees McBride’s office.

Wednesday morning, The State reported that nine members of the 16-member legislative delegation believed McBride was unfit to lead the elections office. Some members said they wanted to hold a vote of “no confidence” – a vote that almost certainly would have gone against McBride.

McBride has been executive director of the Richland County Elections & Voter Registration office since July 2011, appointed unanimously by the delegation.

In having her lawyer make it clear to delegation members that she intends to step down, McBride appeared at last to be taking a decisive step to quell a furious controversy that has only escalated since the Nov. 6 election.

Although for six weeks numerous citizens and public officials have made repeated expressions of outrage about McBride’s role in the election, McBride has remained largely silent. On the one occasion she did speak publicly, she blamed an unnamed employee for many of the election problems.

However, the board’s preliminary investigative report, issued Dec. 6, found she was largely responsible for the election fiasco, which many have called one of the most bungled county elections in modern state history.

That election was marked was marked by severe shortages of voting machines at the county’s 124 precincts and long lines with waits of five hours or more.

Other problems included numerous inoperable machines, an unknown number of voters giving up their right to vote because of the long lines and later, uncounted ballots being found in the office and on several voting machines.

Various precinct managers have told The State they warned McBride’s office weeks in advance of machine shortages but said their warnings weren’t heeded.

Throughout the controversy, McBride has been publicly supported by several prominent longtime lawmakers on the county legislative delegation, including Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, and Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, as well as U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

But as members of the public continued to hound the lawmakers with complaints about the election, more and more individuals on the delegation began to say publicly that McBride must go.

Although the delegation has no legal authority over McBride’s position, its members have a certain moral authority and occupy a bully pulpit that McBride could apparently no longer ignore.

One tipping point almost certainly came Monday evening, when Liz Crum, chairwoman of the county Elections Board and a respected Columbia lawyer, announced publicly that McBride should resign.

When the other members of her board refused to take any disciplinary action against McBride, Crum resigned herself, effective Tuesday.

“After extreme soul-searching ... I no longer have confidence in Ms. Mc-Bride’s ability to lead the office,” said Crum, who had worked with McBride since 1998 while McBride oversaw the county’s voter registration office. Crum said that restoring voter trust in the county elections office required a new director.

John Crangle, a Columbia lawyer who has represented government workers in labor disputes, said Wednesday that what’s likely going on with Nichols and McBride is that they are negotiating how she will leave her post as the highest-paid county elections director in South Carolina.

“If I were her lawyer, I wouldn’t let her resign without getting these things settled,” said Crangle, who is also executive director of S.C. Common Cause, a government watchdog group. “She is probably negotiating right now either to be transferred to a post with a comparable salary or a one-way ticket out for which she is very well paid.”

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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