Editorial: Smooth Columbia elections will depend on execution, not excessive spending

September 1, 2013 

— WHILE WE understand Columbia and Richland County officials’ desire to make sure the Nov. 5 city elections go off without a hitch, a plan to increase the number of poll workers, voting places and other expenditures — possibly doubling or even tripling spending over past years — is excessive.

It’s natural for officials to be anxious given the disaster of 2012, when Richland County’s Elections & Voter Registration office oversaw perhaps the most botched election in modern S.C. history. The long lines, machine shortages and failures, ballot seizures and lawsuits won’t soon be forgotten.

But you can’t compare the predictably high turnout and challenges of a general election that features a presidential contest as well as legislative and local races to a municipal election comprised of the selection of a mayor and three council members along with a library referendum.

Typically, only about 15 percent of Columbia’s voters go to the polls. Even in good years, the city’s elections haven’t turned out so great a number that it would require the overreaction proposed for Nov. 5: In 2010, 27 percent of the city’s registered voters turned out for an election that featured a heated mayoral race between Steve Benjamin, Kirkman Finlay and Steve Morrison. Turnout increased to 31 percent in the runoff that saw Mr. Benjamin best Mr. Finlay.

While it was wise for City Council to switch Columbia’s elections from the spring to the first Tuesday in November in odd numbered years — and we hope it will increase participation — there’s no reason to believe there will be such a surge that an election plan comparable to what has been used in the past can’t handle it. Even if some slight adjustments are warranted, there is no need to significantly increase the number of poll workers and voting places, escalating costs by tens of thousands of dollars.

The city normally spends about $60,000 on its elections. After the council changed the election to the fall, it approved $120,000 in an effort to avoid a replay of the 2012 election debacle. That alone was too much of an increase. But the county Elections & Voter Registration office made matters even worse when it produced a $191,269 price tag, including the cost of a possible runoff.

Richland elections director Howard Jackson said that this is a “worst-case scenario” projection. It’s more than that: It’s overkill.

Columbia and Richland should scrap this plan and start anew. Should Richland County take steps to ensure that all machines are working properly and that enough of them — and workers — are in place? Yes. But it is completely unacceptable to squander taxpayer dollars treating this as though it were a presidential election when nothing suggests this will be anything more than a typical city election that simply requires good planning and attention to detail.

Instead of trying to overcompensate with extra, unnecessary resources, Richland’s elections office should draft a financially reasonable plan that will produce a smooth, credible election — and then execute it responsibly.

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