Columbia, SC — THE HIRING OF a new elections chief in Richland County should have brought a sigh of relief and hopeful reassurance that the Nov. 6 election debacle and the cloud of distrust that hangs over the voting process soon would be things of the past.
It should have signaled an end of ineptitude, the arrival of new ideas and a welcome promise of a return to smoothly run elections.
All those things might eventually take place under newly hired director Howard Jackson, but they will have to wait while he convinces voters and the community that he indeed is the man for the job. Thanks to some self-inflicted wounds as well as the Board of Elections’ poorly conducted search for a new director, Mr. Jackson comes in amid controversy and suspicion.
It shouldn’t have been this way.
The new director’s arrival should be cause for celebration. I mean, he’s supposed to be a breath of fresh air, right? He’s supposed to help wipe away the memory of one of the most botched elections in modern S.C. history.
He’s the one who is expected to reassure those who stood in line for up to seven hours to cast ballots on Nov. 6 that they won’t have to do that again. He’s the one who is to provide hope to those who waited until they couldn’t wait any longer, and had to leave without voting, that they’ll get to participate next time. He’s the one who is expected to rebuild trust and confidence in the electorate and to stage credible, sound elections.
He’s the one expected to quell the still-heated rage some have as they declare that former director Lillian McBride didn’t pay a high enough price for leading the election mess.
But, unfortunately, Richland’s new elections director, who is to begin work June 24, will come in with a bit of baggage of his own.
Mr. Jackson, who has led the Orangeburg County elections office for the past five years, created credibility and trust problems by not volunteering key information about himself. First of all, during job interviews he failed to reveal that he had been investigated in 2008 for election-law violations involving alleged absentee ballot irregularities; the State Law Enforcement Division found no wrongdoing, but that’s the kind of thing you should share with a potential employer.
As if that wasn’t enough, it was later discovered that Mr. Jackson held multiple jobs that demanded 93 hours of his time per week. While Mr. Jackson had acknowledged that he worked 16 hours a week as an Air Force reservist, in addition to his full-time elections post in Orangeburg County, he did not disclose his full-time job as CEO of a charity he founded. In addition, he is a licensed real estate salesman.
In both instances, the only reason the information came out was because The State reported it.
By not sharing that information, Mr. Jackson did himself far more harm than good. A critical part of his job in Richland County will be to project an air of trustworthiness and integrity.
Obviously, the Board of Elections is convinced Mr. Jackson will be able to win over the public.
It would be nice if the board could play a role in helping him earn the public’s trust, but that panel doesn’t exactly enjoy the best reputation itself. Many in the public fault the board for not doing a better job of overseeing the office. It has received understandably harsh criticism for keeping Ms. McBride employed in the office at all, let alone in a top position at a very good salary.
And then there’s the sloppy job the Board of Elections did in conducting the director search. If it had not been for The State, chances are that problems in the three finalists’ work history never would have surfaced. These are problems that county elections officials or their representatives should have found.
Frankly, once the board learned that Mr. Jackson had failed to reveal the SLED investigation and the other two candidates had not shared that they were not certified to hold elections in their current jobs, Richland elections officials at least should have considered starting over. But when two candidates withdrew their names, leaving Mr. Jackson as the lone finalist, the smart — and only — thing for the Board of Elections to do was to start over.
Instead, it hired the proverbial last man standing. It didn’t even waver after discovering that Mr. Jackson had not revealed the full extent of his overloaded work week.
In the process, the Board of Elections did voters, Mr. Jackson and itself a disservice. If the board had conducted a new process and vetted Mr. Jackson anew, it would have given him a chance to rise to the top. If he had, that would have vested him with some credibility; if he hadn’t, we’d have a different director, without the baggage.
Although it might appear unfair to some, the bottom line is that instead of being embraced as that breath of fresh air Richland so badly needs, Mr. Jackson first will have to pass the smell test because of the way he was hired. You can bet that people will be watching closely to see whether he is indeed working in the office or spending time elsewhere. Obviously, there will be no problem with his serving his country, but any other activity is going to get close scrutiny.
Yet even though Mr. Jackson has to prove himself and deal with the problems his omissions have generated, the fact is that he is the new elections director. And we need him to succeed.
All we have to do is reflect back on the nightmare of Nov. 6 to understand why.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.