Richland’s new elections director addresses needs head-on

dhinshaw@thestate.comAugust 15, 2013 

Richland County’s new elections director began a campaign Thursday to win over the political leaders who took heat over the bungled November election.

Just two months into the job, Howard Jackson led a tour of the leaky warehouse at the end of a rutted lane in north Columbia where the county’s 947 voting machines are stored.

He addressed the need for additional voting machines and his desire for new, secure and climate-controlled storage to better protect the computerized machines.

His message: “If we want to have elections with minimal issues, we have to eliminate those things we can control” that could cause technical problems.

Jackson had a receptive audience Thursday, but that won’t always be the case.

Councilman Norman Jackson (no relation) was the only one of 11 council members to take Howard Jackson up on his offer of a tour. (To be fair, council members take the month of August off.) Three members of the state-appointed county election board and the county administrator, Tony McDonald, joined the group.

“The building’s a piece of junk,” said Norman Jackson, surveying the ceiling. “Look at the insulation falling out right there.” Shelving was raised off the floor because of leaks along one wall that puddled in the floor, and a ceiling vent leaked water onto machines below before the staff realized it.

Howard Jackson led the group through orderly rows of carts, stacked with equipment, as a team of three employees tested voting machines along one wall.

“It’s an every-day, all-day thing,” said Cheryl Goodwin, who’s in charge of the county’s voting machines.

The office is preparing for the Nov. 5 election, which is shaping up to be a doozy: Not only a three-man race for Columbia mayor and a countywide library-tax increase, but possibly a question on whether to change Columbia’s form of government.

Goodwin said about a third of the voting machines have been tested so far, but she couldn’t say how many had problems.

But none are beyond repair, Jackson said. They were purchased in 2004.

The county is short 155 voting machines under state law, Howard Jackson said. That doesn’t take into account the new voting precincts legislators have created, requiring 158 more new machines – at $1,700 a pop.

He said the county has enough machines for visually-impaired voters but would need another 20 when the new precincts go into effect in 2014.

The new director would not say how much it would cost to meet the needs he’s identified.

Councilman Seth Rose, a vocal critic of the elections office, said he’ll scrutinize any requests for more money since the elections office got a $400,000 boost two years ago.

“It’s the same old song and dance,” Rose said. “Where’s the money going?”

Jackson said he wanted public officials to see the warehouse, which “shocked” him at his first visit. “They’ve actually done a pretty good job of patching it up,” he said.

He told the group his priority is getting office space and voting-machine storage under one roof. The elections office is at the county administration building at Hampton and Harden streets.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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