Bolton: Richland County needs more than new precincts to avoid another election debacle

Associate EditorJune 23, 2013 

GIVE RICHLAND County legislators credit for adding new polling places to help reduce voters’ wait during elections, but make no mistake about it: That won’t fix the problems that led to the Nov. 6 debacle in which thousands waited up to seven hours to vote. And more precincts won’t prevent a similar fiasco in the future.

November’s disaster wasn’t about the number of precincts in the county. It wasn’t even about the overall number of voting machines the county owns, for that matter. It was about a failure of leadership and preparation among elections officials, who simply did not distribute an adequate number of working machines to county polling places.

If county lawmakers truly want to fix the problem, they are going to have to give up some power, namely control of the local office that oversees elections.

They must give Richland County full authority over the Elections and Voter Registration Office, which oversaw one of most poorly staged elections in our state’s history. The delegation appointed the director who oversaw that mockery of the voting process; it also appoints the board that oversees the director and the office. The Board of Elections now hires and fires the director and recently hired a new elections chief.

While some county lawmakers pat themselves on the back for splitting precincts and adding new ones, it’s a half-measure that would ease waits under normal circumstances. Recent legislation adds 25 new polling places, splitting precincts in northwest and Northeast Richland County, along with Hopkins, Eastover and some downtown precincts.

The number of precincts increased from 124 to 149, effective in January.

Lawmakers mean well. With nearly two-thirds of the county’s 124 precincts having more than the 1,500 voters that state law allows, they felt that this was one thing they could get done to help. It does help. But only a little.

And the reason the precincts had gotten that way is because lawmakers failed to maintain them.

Frankly, having lawmakers determine when to expand precincts and new polling places is as about as reasonable as having them appoint the local elections board that they don’t fund. Just as County Council is forced to fund the elections and voter registration office without any input into how it operates, the county also will have to foot the bill for implementing the new precincts. In addition, the county must pay to provide a voting machine at each new precinct for voters who are blind; those machines cost about $2,000 each.

But the new precincts will provide little defense against the type of incompetence that occurred in November: County elections officials, led by a novice elections director in Lillian McBride, placed too few voting machines at polling places. Whether there are 124 or 149 precincts, if there are too few voting machines, the lines are still going to be unusually and unnecessarily long. Yes, it’s likely that more precincts would reduce waits, but by how much when there aren’t an adequate number of machines?

The problem in November was that those running the election botched it. Not only were there not enough voting machines, but there were not enough poll workers, and there was an unusual number of machine and equipment malfunctions.

In other words, county lawmakers’ response thus far is akin to a doctor who sees a patient going into cardiac arrest and finally puts an Ace bandage on that gimpy ankle the patient has been complaining about for years.

Instead of pretending their half-measure approach of increasing the number of precincts will make a real difference, Richland lawmakers must acknowledge that they don’t need to be calling the shots. The ideal thing would be to put all county elections offices under the State Elections Commission, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The only realistic alternative is the County Council.

As long as the Richland County Elections and Voter Registration Office answers to no one other than a board that answers to no one, there is no way to hold this office accountable. It can conduct elections as it pleases with little or no consequence.

But if it were under Richland’s purview, chances are it would get better leadership via a county search and recruitment process. Just as important, it would get necessary and ongoing scrutiny of its operations, budget, personnel, etc. from the county administrator as well as County Council, which ultimately answers to voters.

As things stand, the well-funded elections office (county lawmakers made sure it would be stuffed with cash) can do just about anything, including conduct a terribly messy election that generates tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and Richland County, its voters and taxpayers can only stand idly by and pay for it all.

That’s not the way it should work. If the county is going to be on the hook for the cost, it ought to be in control of that office.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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