RICHLAND COUNTY, SC — A state election audit revealed Thursday that Richland County officials failed to count 1,114 absentee ballots when finalizing results of the Nov. 5 city and county elections.
Howard Jackson, county election director, said the electronic ballots came from a single voting machine used by absentee voters at the election office.
This was the first countywide election since Richland County’s botched 2012 general election, considered one of the worst in state history. At that time, precincts across the county did not have enough voting machines, leaving some voters in line for up to seven hours, and hundreds of ballots turned up uncounted days later.
Jackson disclosed the findings in a letter to county administrator Tony McDonald and later in the day discussed it behind closed doors with members of the county Election
s & Voter Registration Board.
Jackson declined Thursday to say who was responsible for the error or what actions he might take.
He did acknowledge, however, that absentee balloting is the responsibility of his predecessor, Lillian McBride, who was demoted in the wake of last year’s county election debacle but given another position in the office. Still, he would not pin blame on anyone, characterizing the mistake as a “system” problem.
McBride attended Thursday night’s meeting but did not meet with the board.
Jackson was hired in June, and the Nov. 5 election – including a race for Columbia mayor and a property-tax increase for libraries – was the first countywide election held on his watch.
Jackson said votes on a single personal electronic ballot, or PEB, were not counted. Poll workers insert a PEB into a voting machine to open and close it; it stores all the ballots cast on that machine.
“We just missed one of the PEBs,” Jackson said. “I can’t understand how that happened.”
The overlooked votes would not have changed the outcome of any ballot measure, said both Jackson and Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the S.C. Election Commission.
Still, some political leaders were quick to criticize the error.
"If it’s possible, Richland County citizens now have even less faith in their elections,” said Eaddy Willard, county Republican chairwoman. “Tonight I am calling on Richland County leaders to finally fix the problems. Take action and d
o your jobs."
The S.C. Democratic Party released this statement from chairman Jaime Harrison in response to the announcement that 1,100 absentee ballots from the most recent election in Richland County were not counted:
“Like many Richland County residents, I was shocked and frustrated to hear about the results of the South Carolina Election Commission audit. It is inexcusable and unacceptable. The voters of every county in South Carolina must be able to have full confidence in the electoral process and uphold the promise that every single vote counts. The South Carolina Democratic Party supports any and all efforts to solve these increasingly-frequent problems at the Richland County Election Commission once and for all. Leaders must ensure that voters in South Carolina can finally have confidence that their vote was counted.”
Elections board chairman Allen Dowdy said Thursday’s closed-door meeting focused primarily on personnel matters.
“We feel that the election overall went good,” Dowdy said. “Of course, we did have some glitches as have been indicated and we are continuing to work hard to make this perfect as soon as possible through training, checks and balance systems, and we’re very proud of that and we’re going to continue to work hard.”
Jackson apologized to anyone whose vote was not counted.
Richland County sent certified results to the state election commission for auditing, which began Nov. 7, Whitmire said. The audit was not finished until Thursday, but Whitmire said it was clear on Wednesday that the results were not correct.
He provided figures showing a 1,114-vote difference between state and county tallies for the library referendum and a 632-vote difference in the mayor’s race.
The election commission recommends that county offices conduct their own audits in-house before certifying results, Whitmire said. Some counties do, he said, but most ask the state office to do the audits for them.
Jackson said Richland County will conduct the audits from now on.
“I want to reassure the citizens of Richland County this process has been corrected for all elections going forward,” he said.
Audits involve checking data contained on a machine’s PEB against results contained on a flashcard inside the voting machine, Jackson said.
In the letter provided to County Council members by email, Jackson said policies and procedures had not been followed by staff members. He assured the council new standards would be in place for the strong-mayor referendum in Columbia on Dec. 3, less than two weeks away.
Before the Nov. 5 vote, Jackson announced several measures to ensure a smooth election, among them preventative maintenance on the county’s stable of voting machines, extra voting machine technicians on election day, and phone lines dedicated to poll worker problems.
Howard Jackson’s letter
Members of County Council,
An audit by the State Election Commission found that a number of absentee votes were not included in the official certified results of the November 5 election. The number of uncounted votes were not enough to change the outcome of any race. Staff members responsible for counting these votes failed to follow established policies and procedures. Starting with the special election on December 3, this office will implement a stronger system of checks and balances. We will institute a mandatory pre-certification audit to catch errors. After the November 2012 General Election, it has been my personal mission to hold staff accountable for their actions as we strive to restore public confidence and trust in the election process. We’ve made tremendous strides in the right direction, but there are still things that must be improved. I have and will maintain transparency with the media and want to ensure you and your constituents that I take full responsibility for what happened, full responsibility for carrying out the necessary corrective actions and full responsibility for ensuring this will not happen again.
At today’s board meeting of the Elections Commission at 4 p.m., I will go into more detail. However, I wanted to make sure you had the necessary background beforehand.
Howard Jackson, MPA
Director, Richland County Elections and Voter Registration
2020 Hampton Street
Columbia, SC 29204
(803) 576-2200 (Office)
(803) 576-2205 (Fax)
Staff writer Noelle Phillips contributed.