RICHLAND COUNTY, SC — The just-fired director of Richland County elections said the board that oversees the office was unwilling to make staff changes and was far more concerned about making local legislators happy than being accountable to Richland County voters.
Howard Jackson came to a news conference without a script Tuesday, the day after he was dismissed on a 4-1 vote of his board.
For nearly an hour, seeming poised and calm, Jackson gave his view on issues that the board has refused to address openly since an unmitigated election disaster in November 2012 that grabbed the public’s attention.
Jackson himself pledged to take on at least one of those issues – uncounted votes in the county’s 2012 and 2013 elections. He said he will meet with SLED Wednesday to turn over evidence of the obstruction of elections.
“My heart goes out to the citizens of the county, because they deserve better,” said Jackson, who had the $78,000-a-year job just eight months.
His comments appeared to underscore what some in the public have long suspected: The board has intentionally withheld information and blocked change.
“Everything is just done under the cloak of secrecy,” Jackson said.
The dismissed director said he was told early on by the chairman of the election board, Allen Dowdy, that he had a good staff and that everyone should remain in their positions.
But in September, Jackson said, he decided to give the deputy director of elections, Garry Baum, the opportunity to resign because he “did not know the job, it was clear” and had not charged voting machines properly the previous Election Day.
When he informed the board of his decision, Jackson said he was warned not to proceed, because Baum is the brother-in-law of Sen. Joel Lourie.
He ignored the board’s directive.
And just this month, when he hired a replacement to fill Baum’s position, Jackson claimed the board’s first question was the job candidate’s race, not his qualifications.
He said he was ordered to rescind the job offer he had made because the board did not want an African-American in the position.
Jackson characterized both of those situations as “unlawful” meddling by the board, because decisions about hiring and firing were his to make, not the board’s. And because hiring based on race is discrimination.
“Bottom line, I think it came down to a power struggle,” Jackson said of his dismissal.
Yet the board wanted him to be accountable, he said. And he maintained the office staff had “turned the corner, and we were poised to do some really good things, despite opposition from the board.”
The former director also said he was concerned about Richland County’s readiness, without a director, to hold June primaries less than four months from now.
Jackson said the five-member board was twice informed by the county attorney that the director had the authority to make employment decisions for the $1.2 million office, only to have the board investigate how they might transfer hiring duties to themselves.
In another instance, he said, the board instructed him to announce that the deputy director for voter registration, Lillian McBride, had nothing to do with a failure to count 1,114 absentee ballots in November voting that decided the mayor’s race and a library tax.
When pressed on who was responsible for the error, Jackson equivocated.
When asked if he had determined McBride needed to be dismissed, he said no. But he also said board members told him “it would be a bad decision” to discipline her.
Ironically, Samuel Selph, the newest member of the Board of Elections & Voter Registration Office and the only one who routinely speaks to the media, said later Tuesday the board was unlikely to respond to Jackson’s voluminous allegations.
His reason: the privacy allowed in regard to personnel matters.
“He had a chance to vent today. But the board has taken the position he’s a personnel matter, and hopefully we can move on from here and right the ship.”
One of Jackson’s most damaging comments was that hundreds of absentee votes went uncounted in the 2012 general election.
Jackson said he brought the issue – only divulged publicly on Tuesday – to his board.
“I was told, ‘Do nothing.’”
Jackson said he would meet with SLED Wednesday to provide “all documents” pertaining to the county’s 2012 and 2013 elections.
“I have evidence I need to turn over to them,” he said. “I’ll answer any questions under oath. I’ll take a polygraph. I just want the truth to come out.”
Jackson did not disclose any other evidence he intends to provide to the State Law Enforcement Division.
Local legislators, who hire the elections board, seized on the reference to SLED.
“If there were illegal activities, he needed to be talking to SLED first, and not wait until he’s terminated to make these points,” said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland.
Added Sen. John Scott, D-Richland: “Let’s see what he gives to SLED.”
And Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, said he hopes SLED will be “looking into this mess.”
“The problems have always appeared to be more than just simple incompetency from a few office employees,” Ballentine said by email.
“Because he chose to speak out about political cronyism and dysfunction in that office, I fully expect his detractors to begin to tear this man down with some sort of smear campaign in the coming hours and days ahead.”
Lourie, meanwhile, said his brother-in-law’s employment had nothing to do with him.
“Any suggestion to the contrary would be false,” Lourie said. “I’ve had no conversation about Garry with Mr. Jackson. I’ve had no conversation about Garry’s termination with any member of the board. I would strongly, strongly challenge Mr. Jackson to produce any documentation or evidence that I’ve ever discussed this matter with anybody.”
In a later statement, he said Baum had worked for the state election commission for 24 years before moving to the county office for three.
Meanwhile, county legislators say they’re working on reforms they hope will be in place this year.
Smith wants to put all 46 county election offices under the authority of the state elections office, resulting in what he called a “unified and professional” system statewide.
And Lourie is co-sponsoring legislation, with Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, requiring Richland County to absorb the office, placing it under the authority of the county administrator.
Still, two members of the public who joined a contingent of Jackson’s staff at Tuesday’s media event, said they hope local legislators will use this opportunity to talk openly with the public and wipe the slate clean.
“We’ve had this festering sore for years,” Bob Liming said. “Our elected officials have got to do something. Start fresh. Find out what’s wrong and fix it.”
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.