EXCLUSIVE: RICHLAND COUNTY ELECTION MESS

Richland County short hundreds of poll workers on election day

cleblanc@thestate.comFebruary 27, 2013 

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— Richland County elections officials not only failed to provide enough voting machines in November, they cut the number of poll workers by 307 from the previous presidential election.

Long lines, voter frustration and misplaced votes may be further explained by the use of 27½ percent fewer poll workers than in 2008, a State newspaper analysis of data requested from the State Election Commission shows.

Further, the county had 575 fewer workers on Nov. 6 than the minimum required by state law. It should have had at least 1,381 based on the number of voters who had registered by the time county officials statewide were preparing for fall elections.

Richland County stands in contrast to South Carolina’s two other largest counties.

Charleston increased the number of poll workers in November by 443, or 42 percent, compared to the number it used in 2008.

Greenville used 30 more workers than it did four years earlier, the data show.

Efforts Wednesday to get explanations from Richland County’s embattled former elections director Lillian McBride were unsuccessful.

McBride, who still works in the office, asked a reporter to provide her with the data, and her office called state election officials and asked for the same data.

Still, McBride didn’t call the newspaper back or respond to emailed questions.

Interim director Jasper Salmond also did not return calls.

It’s unclear why Richland County did not hire more workers. Did election officials think they enough? Did they have problems recruiting?

Today, the board that oversees county elections is scheduled to meet. The poll worker issue is not on the agenda.

But Steve Hamm, the attorney hired by the Richland County elections board to get to the bottom of one of the most botched elections in recent state history, said that such a large reduction in poll workers had not come up in the dozens of conversations he has had while investigating the Election Day fiasco.

Hamm said he wants to look deeper into the matter raised by the newspaper. He’s particularly interested in a precinct-by-precinct analysis and a comparison of the ratio of fewer machines to fewer workers. The county has 124 precincts.

Hamm said he expects to submit his final report and recommendations within a month.

When provided the poll worker numbers by the newspaper, Hamm said his first impression is that more poll workers likely would not have made much of a difference on Election Day because of the machine shortage.

Hamm has reported that 629 machines were used Nov. 6. That’s 318 fewer than state law’s mandate of 947, or one machine for every 250 registered voters.

Liz Crum, who resigned her board chairmanship Dec. 18 in protest over the meltdown and the board’s refusal at the time to discipline McBride, said Wednesday that no one mentioned a cut in the number of poll workers.

“It was never discussed with us,” Crum said of the board, on which she served 12 years. “And I was never aware of it.”

State elections office spokesman Chris Whitmire said his agency does not compare poll worker numbers across the state. But his office does receive records on the numbers of workers per county in order to reimburse the counties for those workers’ pay.

“Looking at this data,” Whitmire said of the three largest counties, “Richland County’s decrease in the number of poll managers used appears to be an anomaly.

“In conducting elections, ensuring an adequate number of poll managers to meet voters’ needs is very important,” he said.

The Charleston experience

Joe Debney, Charleston County’s elections director, said his office devised a media blitz to help recruit poll workers.

“That’s how we got (1,505 workers),” Debney said. “That’s our M.O. now.”

Charleston County is about 100 miles across at it widest point, has numerous waterways and few interstate highways to serve its 182 precincts. It takes 1 hour and 45 minutes to get from one end to the other at the farthest points, according to Google maps.

“So, you’ve got to really prepare for any kind of scenario,” he said.

Richland County is smaller than Charleston and has three interstates and rivers only at the county’s edges.

Charleston used 1,062 workers in the 2008 presidential election. It added 443 more last fall.

Efforts to reach Greenville County’s elections director, Conway Belangia, were unsuccessful Wednesday.

But the data show Greenville used 1,247 workers last year and 1,217 in the previous presidential election.

It missed its 2012 mandated minimum of 1,654 workers by 407. That’s off by 33 percent, compared with Richland’s 42 percent shortage.

The poll

worker law

As with many other South Carolina election laws, the poll worker statute has no enforcement provision or penalty for violators.

The 1996 law states that each county must have at least three poll workers for every 500 registered voters, “or portion of each 500.”

Some precincts, particularly in rural counties, have fewer than 500 voters. For example, Richland County’s smallest precinct, Ardincaple, has 399 registered voters.

That difference in precinct size means each county election office does a precinct-by-precinct analysis to determine the actual number of workers that will be needed, state election office spokesman Whitmire said.

The law does not specify a timeline for when county officials should arrive at a total, he said. Most counties make their decision in July, based on the number of voters registered then. That allows enough time to recruit and train poll workers, he said.

Using the July totals in Richland, Charleston and Greenville counties, the newspaper and the state office calculated the minimums required by the law.

Few counties hit the mandated number.

“I think we have one county that fully appoints (the required total routinely), that’s York County,” said Marci Andino, director of the state office.

Remaining Questions

How did the shortage of poll workers contribute to last fall’s meltdown?

How did election officials arrive at the number 806 for poll workers when state law mandated 1,381 and 1,113 workers were used in the 2008 presidential election.

Will anyone be disciplined for the mess and how?

Why didn’t elections director Lillian McBride or her staff respond to pre-election warnings from precinct managers that they needed more machines?

What is the identity of the part-time staffer in McBride’s office who changed the number of machines that were to be distributed?

What exactly has the county Elections & Voter Registration office done to ensure that McBride’s now-acknowledged mistakes don’t happen again?

Poll worker numbers

Counties select poll clerks and poll managers to staff each precinct. State law determines a minimum number of poll workers, specifies training and sets the pay rate. Clerks, the senior poll worker at a precinct, make $180 per election. Poll workers make $120.

After Election Day, counties submit requests for payment to the S.C. State Election Commission. The numbers in this article are calculated based on those reimbursement submissions.

Here’s how many poll workers the state’s largest counties used in 2008 and 2012 general elections:

November 2012

Richland County: 806

Charleston County: 1,505

Greenville County: 1,247

November 2008

Richland County: 1,113

Charleston County: 1,062

Greenville County: 1,217

SOURCE: S.C. State Election Commission records

Remaining Questions How did the shortage of poll workers contribute to last fall’s meltdown? How did election officials arrive at the number 806 for poll workers when state law mandated 1,381 and 1,113 workers were used in the 2008 presidential election. Will anyone be disciplined for the mess and how? Why didn’t elections director Lillian McBride or her staff respond to pre-election warnings from precinct managers that they needed more machines? What is the identity of the part-time staffer in McBride’s office who changed the number of machines that were to be distributed? What exactly has the county Elections & Voter Registration office done to ensure that McBride’s now-acknowledged mistakes don’t happen again? Poll worker numbers Counties select poll clerks and poll managers to staff each precinct. State law determines a minimum number of poll workers, specifies training and sets the pay rate. Clerks, the senior poll worker at a precinct, make $180 per election. Poll workers make $120. After Election Day, counties submit requests for payment to the S.C. State Election Commission. The numbers in this article are calculated based on those reimbursement submissions. Here’s how many poll workers the state’s largest counties used in 2008 and 2012 general elections: November 2012 Richland County: 806 Charleston County: 1,505 Greenville County: 1,247 November 2008 Richland County: 1,113 Charleston County: 1,062 Greenville County: 1,217 SOURCE: S.C. State Election Commission records

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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