Bolton: Richland shouldn’t pay to fix elections mess

Associate EditorJanuary 11, 2013 

— WHILE THE Richland County Board of Elections is busy ensuring that Lillian McBride’s self-inflicted fall from grace is as painless as possible — at least to her pocket — its members don’t appear to be concerned about taxpayers at all.

There is speculation that Richland County Council might be expected to pick up the tab for sorting out the mess springing from the Nov. 6 election debacle that left many voters standing in line for hours to cast ballots and led others to leave before they got a chance to support their chosen candidates.

But it would be unacceptable for County Council — taxpayers, really — to fork over even one more dime beyond the existing budget to help settle problems it had no role in creating and no control over. Although County Council is required by law to fund the office, it has no say in how it is run. Local lawmakers chose Ms. McBride to run the office and appointed the county Board of Elections, which oversees the director and the elections process.

Just as it had no hand in creating this mess, County Council can only sit and watch as elections officials, no doubt receiving some guidance from some lawmakers, try to clean it up.

After the Nov. 6 catastrophe, the Board of Elections hired attorneys to conduct a much-needed investigation of what went wrong. Once Ms. McBride decided to step down last week, the board hired Jasper Salmond to fill in as interim director at a salary of $4,500 a month. The county elections board has urged Mr. Salmond to offer Ms. McBride a $74,600-a-year job as deputy director in a newly reorganized office. She would oversee county voter registration efforts and absentee balloting.

While Ms. McBride would no longer receive the $89,124 a year she was paid as director, there will be those who understandably question why she was able to preside over such a colossal mistake and keep a job of any kind, much less land one very similar to her old job running voter registration, but at an extra $8,000 pay.

I have no problem with Ms. McBride being placed in a job that fits her skills. Lawmakers set her up to fail when they chose her to do something she had never done before — stage elections.

I don’t know what Ms. McBride’s new salary should be, but it seems board members should revisit their recommendation. But whatever they decide, they must find a way to accommodate Ms. McBride and pay attorney fees and any other costs associated with the Nov. 6 fiasco from the existing budget.

County taxpayers have already given more than their share at the office — literally. County Council was mandated to provide a hefty infusion of tax dollars for the office when Richland lawmakers passed a law merging elections and voter registration in 2011.

Prior to the merger, the separate elections and voter registration offices had a combined budget of just less than $800,000. The law Richland lawmakers passed required a budget at least equal to the average of the annual budgets for the Charleston and Greenville county boards of election and voter registration. That forced County Council to provide $1.17 million, nearly $400,000 more than the two offices had been funded at together. This fiscal year, the council approved $1.23 million, an amount above what the law required.

The merged office’s sizable budget not only allowed Ms. McBride to become the state’s highest-paid county elections director, but made it possible for her to hire Gary Baum and Cheryl Goodwin away from the State Election Commission. Mr. Baum became deputy director and Ms. Goodwin voting-systems coordinator, with the job of maintaining the county’s voting machines and training poll workers.

And the result was the most bungled election ever although the office was better funded and had more staff dedicated to the effort than the largely one-man operation that former elections director Mike Cinnamon ran for nearly 40 years.

Richland County deserved better, paid for better and shouldn’t have to now pay to smooth over this mess.

The only instance in which I can imagine Richland County needing to ante up is if local and state election officials follow through with a proposal to add new precincts, which would require more money for new voting machines and possibly more poll workers.

But when it comes to addressing the mess from the election and accommodating Ms. McBride, that’s not Richland County Council’s problem. If anything, Richland County, like its voters and taxpayers, is the victim in all of this and deserves far more than an apology from local lawmakers. The county delegation should dedicate itself to pushing for changes that ensure no debacle of this kind ever happens again.

Hiring a new elections director or restructuring the office is mere window dressing. Lawmakers must take themselves and local officials totally out of the equation and place elections in the hands of the State Election Commission.

It’s the least they can do.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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