Richland County election Mess

Richland likely to get at least 20 more precincts

Planning begins to split oversized precincts to eliminate long waits to vote common on Nov. 6

cleblanc@thestate.comJanuary 5, 2013 

Benedict freshman, Kadeeja Vaughn rests her eyes on her boyfriend's shoulder while waiting in line to vote at the David H. Swinton Campus Center. Election Day in Richland County.

KIM KIM FOSTER-TOBIN — kkfoster@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • COMING SUNDAY Richland County Council is concerned it will have to bear the cost of changes in the election office after the Nov. 6 debacle.

— Richland County voters might cast ballots this fall at 20 or more new precincts, each of which would need new, $2,000, taxpayer-funded voting machines designed for the blind.

State and county election authorities are devising a plan to split the county’s oversized precincts — mostly in the northeast, northwest and southeast areas — because those precincts far exceed the state-mandated but long-ignored standard of 1,500 registered voters per precinct.

But subdividing the most bloated precincts and projecting the need for more precincts to accommodate population growth likely would have a domino effect across the county, Richland County’s deputy elections director Garry Baum said Friday.

That could force the creation of 40 or more precincts, Baum, said.

The changes must be in place by November when voters will decide the makeup of Columbia City Council as well as town councils in Irmo and Arcadia Lakes.

As the county’s Nov. 6 election fiasco reverberates, efforts are under way to reform election law statewide.

Bobby Bowers, head of the Office of Research and Statistics, an arm of the State Budget and Control Board, said he plans to ask legislators to increase the outdated 1,500 standard to something like 2,000 or 2,500 registered voters per precinct.

Bowers also said he is seeking support to ease — but not eliminate — the requirement that people must vote only in the precinct where they live. He had not refined the plan as of Friday.

Richland County last added precincts in 2007, when 14 were created under state law, Baum said.

More than two-thirds of Richland County’s 124 precincts exceed the 1,500-voter standard, according to Bowers’ office. That’s 78 oversized precincts, of which nearly half exceed the standard by more than 1,000 voters. The biggest of those, Parkway 1 in Northeast Richland, has 4,029 more voters than it should.

Baum and Bowers, who are working together on Richland County’s plan, say they want to minimize voter inconvenience and expense.

Both said in separate interviews they don’t expect the county will have to buy many more of the most expensive machines for voting by the general public, whose price tag is in the $3,000 to $3,500 range.

“We’re moving numbers, not adding numbers,” Baum said of the total pool of about 245,000 registered voters.

But Baum said federal laws dealing with disabilities require one machine in each precinct for people who are blind. Those machines sell for $1,995, he said.

Twenty new precincts would require spending $39,900 for such machines. Thirty new precincts would cost $59,850, and 50 precincts, $99,750.

While Bowers is focusing on the 20 to 30 largest precincts. Baum said it might be more because the county staff is planning to accommodate population trends.

Bowers favors splitting the largest precincts first, but keeping the polling places nearby. For example, voters who now vote at an oversized precinct at a school would be divided in half alphabetically by their last names. Some in a new precinct might vote in the school cafeteria while the rest in the old precinct would vote in the gym.

“If they split them, they can do it geographically or alphabetically,” Bowers said.

Baum, however, favors a countywide approach with as many separate precincts and polling places as is reasonable.

“We’re initially looking for independent, separate buildings,” he said. “But that might not be practical.”

Subdividing precincts is not as simple as splitting them down the middle, Baum said.

Finding new polling places is not easy, because facilities must be large enough, have sufficient parking and accommodate traffic flow throughout the day, meet standards of accessibility for handicapped voters, and building owners must be willing to expose their property to the public.

Baum said the changes in voting require approval by the Legislature before it recesses in June and ultimately by the U.S. Justice Department’s voting rights office.

All those considerations will determine the final number of precincts, polling places and costs, Baum and Bowers agree.

“In the elections process, you’ve got to have some flexibility,” Bowers said, “but not affect the accuracy of the elections. That’s a delicate balance.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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