SUMTER, SC — Sumter's top election official hasn't updated her certification in at least two years, according to officials with the state Election Commission.
But local officials still think Sumter Election Commission Director Patricia Jefferson is more than qualified for the position she has held since 1999. Jefferson was certified that same year in accordance with state law, which requires staffers of election boards and election commissioners to complete certification within 18 months after being hired or appointed. She has been a member of the election commission itself for about 30 years.
"(Jefferson) took her last class in June 2011," said State Election Commission Director of Public Information and Training Chris Whitmire. "You have to take one class per year, your choice. She did not do that for 2012 and hasn't yet for 2013."
Jefferson did not return calls Monday, but Sumter Election Commission Chairman Goliath Brunson said the longtime elections coordinator is possibly waiting for a new class specifically for directors.
"They talked about that at a conference in March," Brunson said. "I guess she may be waiting for that to get started. They are putting together a new certification process for the directors as far as I know."
A background check by The State newspaper uncovered what Brunson said was a mere oversight. Jefferson was named one of three contenders for a similar position in Richland County, specifically to replace former Richland County elections director Lillian McBride.
Richland County demoted McBride following the county's debacle of an election on Nov. 6. A shortage of voting machines left voters waiting in lines for hours. Many left the polls without voting, leading to appeals and lawsuits.
Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland, and one of the members of the committee searching for Richland County's replacement director, said since Jefferson can update her certification, her current standing is not a "deal breaker."
"If she takes a class within this current year, she will then be current," Whitmire said Monday.
State Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said Jefferson who was hired by the Sumter Election Commission board is "imminently qualified" to head any and all of Sumter's elections.
"I have no concerns with her qualifications or her ability to carry out her duties. But we have a statute that requires this training. Obviously I would encourage all staff members of the Sumter Election Commission to make sure their certification is maintained as required by the law."
Whitmire said while the law requires staffers including directors to obtain and then maintain certification, the law is "toothless" to do anything about staffers who fail to comply.
"The law requires them to do it, but then doesn't really give the state commission any way to deal with it," Whitmire said. Smith said he and other legislators would need to see if it's a statewide problem before making any changes through the General Assembly.
"What I would like to find out is if this is a problem unique to Sumter, or a problem that's pervasive throughout South Carolina," Smith said. "If it is a statewide issue, then maybe the Legislature does need to take a look at the law to simply add in there that the commission must ensure the certification is maintained and remove the staffer if it's not."
Whitmire said the law also doesn't say that a non-certified direction cannot conduct elections.
"Other accounts have implied that she was conducting elections illegally," Whitmire said. "I guess you could read it that way. But when the law has no teeth to it, I don't know if I would go that far, particularly when the law doesn't say what, if any, ramifications there are of not being certified."