EXCLUSIVE : Will SC force Richland Co. to buy voting machines?

dhinshaw@thestate.com March 22, 2013 

— Two Richland County legislators want to require the county to spend up to $140,000 on new voting machines, using money the state provides to cover a host of state-mandated services.

The House budget proviso, inserted by Reps. Nathan Ballentine and Kirkman Finlay, would be a drop in the bucket from the county’s expected $14.6 million in state revenues next year.

But it’s raising objections from the S.C. Association of Counties and others who say the effort, unheard of until now, sets a dangerous precedent and harkens back to old-time politics.

“Local governments all over the state should be very concerned — not just Richland County, but every local government should be concerned about state government dictating how they should spend their money,” state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said Friday.

Republicans Ballentine and Finlay said they’re just trying to ensure the county doesn’t have another Election Day fiasco like the one Nov. 6 that had people waiting in line up to six hours to vote. Others reported they left in frustration without casting a ballot. "We can’t afford another black eye at the ballot box in Richland County,” Ballentine said by email Friday.

The new voting machines are part of discussions to add as many as 20 new precincts in Richland County, each of which would require an ADA-compliant machine designed for the blind.

Bobby Bowers, director of the division of research for the State Budget and Control Board, is advising county legislators on the precinct issue, in hopes it can be resolved by June, when the session ends.

Garry Baum, the county’s deputy director of elections, said $140,000 would buy 70 of the voting machines, fewer if they are equipped with printers. Machines cost $2,000 each.

The county already has 145 of the audio voting machines now – more than enough, unless the county substantially adds to its 124 precincts. Extra machines are used by absentee voters, for training purposes and as replacement machines, Baum said.

Finlay said legislators are interested in adding Richland County precincts to address lines at the polls.

“This is about making sure that every vote counts and every vote is counted,” he said.

Ballentine said that, “after hearing that Richland County Council was not going to fund it, I led the effort to require them to do this for the voters of our county.”

But fellow Republican Greg Pearce, a longtime councilman, said no one has ruled out buying new machines; the council hasn’t even begun its budget deliberations yet.

Pearce said the $140,000 requirement for voting machines was added at the last minute, so the county had no opportunity to object.

“What’s to keep next year legislator Smith or Jones from saying, ‘You know what? I need a water park in my district back home,’ ” Pearce said.

Pearce, a past president of the S.C. Association of Counties, said this is the first time legislators have attempted to earmark “money that’s supposed to pay for all the other things we’re already doing for the state.”

Tim Winslow, who follows the state budget for the S.C. Association of Counties, and the group’s lawyer, Robert Croom, each said he considered the earmarks unprecedented.

“It sure would put the counties in a bind if you start spending all the state money this way,” Winslow said.

But Jackson, who serves on a finance subcommittee that will consider the proviso, doesn’t expect it will come to that.

“Sometimes we have in the past cleaned up some things that perhaps my colleagues in the House did not think through as it relates to government processes,” he said.

“I can’t imagine it surviving the Senate.”

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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