COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolinas election laws are almost completely toothless and enforcement is a matter of foxes and henhouses, concerned state officials are saying in the wake of Richland Countys bungled election.
I know that this agency does not have enforcement authority, Marci Andino, director of the State Election Commission said. That is the structure the General Assembly wanted.
Local elections and voter registration boards are created by state law through county legislative delegations, with each running its elections independently of state government control and accountability, state election officials say.
People can tell her to just go jump in the lake, state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said of Andino. Smith last week filed a bill that would weaken local boards, which he called fiefdoms. He wants to shift local control to Andinos agency.
State elections office spokesman Chris Whitmire put the issue into sharp focus: I know of no law that says who enforces (election laws) or what are the penalties if you dont (comply).
A review of state election laws by The State newspaper shows that unless a violation rises to the level of a crime say, vote fraud, voter intimidation or impersonation the statutes are silent on penalties. A handful of criminal cases against local elections officials have been prosecuted in recent years, however.
Citizens can complain through the courts. But lawsuits are expensive and can be slow. At least three suits have been filed in Richland County because of the Nov. 6 mess.
Bobby Bowers, a state researcher who for decades has advised state and local lawmakers on redrawing political boundaries and complying with election laws, is part of the chorus for checks and balances.
Theres no repercussion, Bowers said of violations.
Ive been pushing for that for three years, he said. The state needs to have authority over the counties. They (local officials) wont like that too much.
He characterized the offenders less as intentional lawbreakers and more as ignorant of the law or unrestrained by it.
Its like going to church, Bowers said. The people who need to hear the sermon dont go.
Richland County ignites interest
Richland County is the current poster child for non-worshipers. Its botched election, widely considered among the worst in recent state history, has drawn statewide attention and prompted calls for reforms.
The countys Elections & Voter Registration office on Election Day violated the states requirement of having one voting machine for every 250 voters who have registered as of 30 days before the election. The office missed the mandated mark of 966 by 339 machines for reasons that, as yet, are not fully explained.
No one has been held accountable. After six weeks worth of public calls for her to be fired, county elections director Lillian McBride last week said through her lawyer she would step down. Then she apparently changed her mind. Friday, she rejected a demand from 11 of 16 county legislators that she resign that day, saying she is beholden only to the county elections board, which on Monday declined to fire her.
McBride, apparently the highest-paid local elections director in South Carolina, previously had apologized. But she blamed others for unspecified mistakes she admitted had occurred under her watch.
Though state law sets the per-voter machine standard, its up to local elections officials to comply, Whitmire said.
Andinos office stepped in to help McBride on Nov. 6 by providing a few technicians and machines to alleviate a small number of the hours-long lines across the county. The state agency was powerless to do more under the law.
The State Election Commission became involved in counting Richland Countys votes only under court order when the first lawsuit was filed.
As the fiasco unfolded, it also became clear that nearly two-thirds of the countys 124 precincts were in violation of a 42-year-old state law limiting the size of any precinct to 1,500 registered voters.
One oversize precinct, Parkway 1, had 4,029 registered voters almost three times the limit that has been ignored across the state for years, especially in fast-growing counties, Bowers said.
Bowers said he is going to preach his message in February to local elections officials again when he addresses the annual conference of SCARE, the S.C. Association of Registration and Election Officials.
The central theme he will repeat is: Dont even think about changing precincts without going through the Legislature. For the past four or five years, his office has cleaned up behind local officials who redrew precinct lines without going through their legislative delegation and the General Assembly as the law requires.
They just want to make a change, and they make them, Bower said, declining to identify which counties hes referring to. They cant do that. We straighten them out after the fact.
Ultimately, the U.S. Justice Department must approve precinct changes under the federal Voting Rights Act. But that agencys lawyers examining local elections tend to focus on broader issues of fairness than individual precinct lines, state election officials said.
Poll workers and technicians who are responsible for preparing and maintaining voting machines must be trained under a program designed by the State Election Commission.
The agency provides its training programs to local elections officials and offers certification workshops.
But the commission cant force poll workers or technicians to attend. It can, however, withhold or withdraw their certifications if they dont comply within 1½ years, Andino said.
Theres little to make counties comply in other areas, too.
Even vote tallies dont, by law, have to be reported by counties to the state agency, Andino said.
Local officials voluntarily have complied with Andinos request to submit their numbers to her Columbia headquarters for what is called a statewide audit. Last year, her office devised a computer program to help local offices, which in turn forward their tallies electronically. Mostly, large counties with more resources use the program, she said.
Andino said she wants to rewrite a batch of outdated regulations, starting with creating a legal requirement that all 46 counties must report their vote tallies to her agency.
What Im proposing strikes everything thats out there, and it starts with audits, she said.
But state procedures for writing regulations are arcane and glacial. The steps are spelled out in what Andino described as a three-page flow chart and ultimately must be voted on in the Legislature.
South Carolinas election laws are not much different from others in the Southeast, she said.
Georgias elections office is an arm of that states Secretary of States Office. But North Carolina has a stand-alone office with the power to require statewide audits, Andino said.
Still, the Palmetto State has been ahead of the curve in some aspects of its elections.
We were one of the first states to have an independent commission, she said of her agency that does not answer to an elected official.
South Carolina also was a leader in having a statewide voter registration process in the early 1990s and later computerizing the process, Andino said.
Even as Richland Countys meltdown drew attention to flaws in election laws, lawmakers who have drafted proposed fixes as the General Assembly gets ready to convene next month did not address enforcement provisions.
For example, Smiths 10-page bill to centralize elections in Andinos agency does not contain penalties for violators. He said his proposal is in its early stages and hes open to improving it.
Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, said he spent two years preparing a detailed bill that would overhaul the states elections and move their control to a new elections division inside the office of the elected Secretary of State.
Clemmons, a Myrtle Beach lawyer and businessman, 10-year veteran of the Legislature and self-described as well versed in state election laws, paused for several moments last week when The State asked if his bill contains penalties.
That is not included, he said of the 60-page document. Asked if he knows of any penalties in any election law, Clemmons, an architect of the controversial Voter ID law, said, I am unaware of any penalty outside of criminal wrongdoing.
He said he will amend his bill during the first week of the legislative session in January, when the election laws subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee takes up his proposal. Clemmons, the subcommittee chairman, said he will consult with fellow legislators about what the enforcement provisions might be.
I do expect we will have significant debate on the penalties in the Legislature this year, Clemmons said. I believe it is appropriate, if not necessary, to prescribe penalties in order to have accountability.