Richland county election mess

McBride likely to stay on in elections office, with pay cut

Elections board urges interim director to give her lesser post in office she now leads

jmonk@thestate.comJanuary 10, 2013 

  • QUESTIONS STILL UNANSWERED Lillian McBride has stepped aside as director, but will anyone else be disciplined or lose their job? Why didn’t McBride or her staff respond to numerous pre-election warnings from precinct managers that they needed more machines? What is the identity of the part-time staffer who changed the number of machines that were to be distributed? Why were important actions, such as determining the number of machines, left to a part-time employee? Why did machines at precincts not work? How many didn’t work and where were they? How did two styles of paper absentee ballots get printed, causing major problems in counting those ballots? What exactly will be done to ensure these mistakes don’t happen again? What will incoming interim director Jasper Salmond do to create a competent election office? Will Salmond let local state lawmakers determine his hiring of a new elections director – as they did in dictating the choice of McBride in 2011? Can better training of poll workers – and not simply adding more voting machines or creating new precincts – help alleviate long lines? Why didn’t the election commission do a better job of oversight in the months leading up to the Nov. 6 election?

— Former Richland County elections director Lillian McBride is on track to be offered a $74,600-a-year job as deputy director in a newly reorganized elections and voter registration office.

In that new position, McBride – who last week agreed to step out of her $89,124-a-year director’s job – would stay in the office, overseeing county voter registration efforts and absentee balloting. That’s the job she held 18 months ago before becoming the state’s highest-paid county elections director and presiding Nov. 6 over the most bungled county election in modern state history.

Wednesday night, the four-member county elections commission, which oversees the elections office, passed resolutions urging incoming interim elections director Jasper Salmond to offer McBride the job at that salary.

In a brief interview afterward, Salmond – who assumes his duties Monday – said he viewed the commission’s recommendations as directives, indicating he would carry out the resolutions.

McBride, who is to step down at the end of this week, declined comment.

In its Wednesday meeting, the commission heard another report on what went wrong during the Nov. 6 election McBride oversaw, from attorney Steve Hamm.

A major recommendation: The Richland County Election and Voter Registration Commission must institute sweeping reforms if it is to avoid another election disaster.

Hamm was hired in early November to investigate the election failures, which included long lines, waits of five, six and seven hours to vote, as well as an untold number who couldn’t or wouldn’t wait that long to vote – and didn’t. The public outcry has been loud and angry.

Hamm had given a preliminary report of his findings in December, a report that helped lead to McBride stepping down as executive director. Wednesday, he made some general recommendations, identified even more election failures and elaborated on failings he mentioned earlier:

• MACHINE SHORTAGES. In his last report, Hamm had reported that “less than 500” operable voting machines were in place at 124 precincts when polls on Nov. 6. Actually, a revised count shows 539 operable machines were in place. However, the county needed more than 900 machines, and more than 200 machines were left in a county warehouse, he said.

•  MACHINE MESS-UPS After poll managers made emergency pleas for more voting machines on Election Day when lines became unusually long, McBride’s staff began delivering emergency backup machines to precincts. But more than 20 and possibly 40 of these supposedly operable voting machines didn’t work.

• PRIOR WARNING. Weeks before Election Day, poll workers from more than 20 precincts begged the county elections staff for more voting machines, Hamm said. Office workers ignored their pleas.

• MCBRIDE DIDN’T OK DRAWDOWN. Hamm stressed again that an unknown staffer had asserted in July in an email that McBride had ordered that only 605 machines be deployed to the county’s 124 precincts. In reality, more than 900 were needed. Hamm said after multiple interviews with McBride and her staff, he was convinced McBride had given no such order. The name of the staffer who said McBride only wanted 605 machines was not released.

• MCBRIDE IS TO BLAME. As executive director, McBride still must accept responsibility for the massive election breakdowns and long voting lines at many precincts, and that is why she is leaving her post, Hamm said. McBride has agreed to give up her duties as director on Saturday.

• COMMISSION’S FAILURE. Although Hamm made it clear that McBride and her staff bore major responsibility for the many ways in which the Nov. 6 elections were bungled, he also said he was keenly disappointed in the commission’s lack of oversight of the elections office staff. That lack of oversight and communication was another direct contributor to the election breakdown, he said.

In the future, Hamm said, the commission must get actively involved in meeting with the elections director, knowing precisely how many machines are going to which precincts and get written reports in the months leading up to an election from the elections director.

Hamm and election commission members said their goal from now on should be to have the finest election process in the nation.

“If you are not going to be the best, don’t do it,” Hamm said.

Hamm also called attention to a few bright spots in the Nov. 6 elections.

For example, a few large precincts with a small number of machines managed to avoid long voter lines. This indicates that just adding more voting machines, or opening up new precincts, isn’t the only way to ensure more efficient elections, he said. Better training of poll workers may well be part of any broad solution, he said.

Hamm, who spoke to the commissioners for nearly two hours, said he will be staying on as counsel to finalize his report and suggestions.

One suggestion will be a pre-election checklist of procedures and activities that must be done to have a smooth election, he said.

No such checklist exists now, even though staging a county election is a complicated affair involving the deployment of more than 900 voting machines and 1,000 poll workers to 124 precincts.

The office also is supposed to make sure those 1,000 poll workers take training classes well before the election so they will know how to make a precinct run smoothly. Moreover, some 20 voting machine repair workers must overhaul all voting machines before the election to make sure they work properly before being delivered to precincts. Then, those technicians must remain on call on election day and be able to promptly respond when precincts report machine failures.

However, Hamm made clear, McBride’s office had no one on Nov. 6 – including McBride – who was capable of planning and coordinating that kind of complex operation, with its many moving parts, unpredictable events, numerous details and large numbers of people and machines.

McBride was paid $66,429 in 2011 as the county’s director of voter registration when Mike Cinnamon ran the separate county elections office. She got a raise to $85,000 in mid-2011 when she was named director of the newly merged voter registration and elections office.

The Richland legislative delegation gave that top job to McBride, who had never overseen an election, without seriously considering other candidates.

The commission chose Salmond to replace McBride as acting director when McBride said she was stepping down from her position in a letter delivered to commissioners last week. Salmond, 80 and a former longtime member of the Richland 1 board, will be paid $4,500 a month until the commission hires a new director.

Despite the public outcry, members of the county legislative delegation who hired McBride had no authority to remove her. And the election commission, which could fire her, chose not to.

The commission Wednesday urged Salmond to begin reorganizing the office and instituting reforms.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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