Finalist for Richland elections chief to interview with board

dhinshaw@thestate.comApril 29, 2013 

— Richland County’s election board meets Tuesday to interview the three finalists to replace its beleaguered, demoted director.

The county formally released the names of the three Monday – after refusing to do so last week when asked by a reporter with The State newspaper, in violation of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

But the county Monday would not provide the three finalists’ professional qualifications, to be reviewed by the four-member citizen board in making its selection.

The new director, to be paid $75,000 to $85,000, will be charged with restoring public confidence in the election process. Yet even the search process, handled by a committee appointed by the Richland County legislative delegation, has produced secrecy and confusion.

Election board member Elaine DuBose said Monday she had not been told whether the board would be choosing a new director Tuesday after the interviews.

Documents obtained by The State, interviews and other information show the three have varying levels of experience running elections — skills that seemed in short supply as Richland County’s Nov. 6 elections produced long waits, missing ballots and voter frustration.

Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland and a search-committee member, said Monday about 30 people applied for the position. Finalists are Howard Jackson, director of voter registration and elections in Orangeburg County; Patricia Jefferson, longtime director of Sumter County’s voter office; and Adam Ragan, head of elections in Gaston County, N.C.

• Jackson brought Orangeburg County’s election office into “the age of technology,” instituting a training program using tablets for poll workers, county administrator Harold Young said Monday.

He’s good at dealing with people, no matter who they are, added John Nash, vice-chairman of the election board.

“He understands his job,” Nash said. “He understands the people.”

Both said Orangeburg County hasn’t had any major election problems since Jackson came on board about five years ago.

“Every election has its challenges,” Young said. “It’s not what happens, it’s how you deal with the challenges.”

Before coming to work for the county in January 2008, he was coordinator of special programs for Claflin University and was an investigator and director of the internship program at S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, 1997 to 2001.

He is first sergeant of the aerial port squadron with the U.S. Air Force Reserve and has a master’s in public administration from the University of South Carolina.

• Jefferson, Sumter County’s election director for nearly 20 years, has presided over her share of problems — but many were technology problems, state Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, told The Sumter Item.

“Machines are subject to having malfunctions,” he said. “What the bigger issue is, is that you recognize what the problems are and you address them.”

In 2006, the state Election Commission recognized Sumter County as an outstanding election office for its transition to touch-screen voting, the newspaper reported.

Still, that same year some voters became frustrated with long lines and left without casting ballots, the newspaper reported. Jefferson acknowledged some absentee ballots were “double-counted” before staff corrected them, the newspaper said.

Goliath Brunson, chairman of the county election commission, said Jefferson is detail-oriented and well trusted in her field.

“A lot of what has plagued Richland appears to be obvious stuff, things going unchecked,” he told The Item.

“She’s good at avoiding those type issues. She’s a master at checking and then rechecking, then rechecking what has been rechecked.”

• Ragan has been director of elections for Gaston County, N.C., since May 2011.

Before that, he was a compliance specialist in the campaign finance division with the N.C. State Board of Elections for about four years. He was a political consultant with a firm in Tampa, Fla., after holding posts with the Federal Election Commission in Washington from 1998 to 2005.

Mozelle Cathcart, chairwoman of the Gaston County, N.C., election board, characterized him as a multi-tasker who can get along with just about anybody.

“As a matter of fact, he was Gaston County employee of the year recently,” she said. “And as a newcomer to the area, that says a lot.”

In the runup to the November elections, The Charlotte Observer ran a piece on Ragan characterizing him as a perfectionist who tries to figure out everything that can go wrong – and then prepares for it.

Staff training is a top priority, he told the newspaper, along with staying current on election rules and regulations.

Ragan has a master’s in public affairs from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

The new director will replace Lillian McBride, demoted to a deputy position after November’s botched election.

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