Bolton: Richland County elections board mishandled sacred trust

Associate EditorMarch 2, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— FORMER Elections director Howard Jackson said he made a conscious decision a couple of months ago to stop talking about restoring public trust and confidence in Richland County’s election process.

“I stopped believing it because they didn’t believe it,” he said, referring to members of the Board of Elections and Voter Registration, who fired Mr. Jackson last week after only eight months on the job.

On Tuesday, Mr. Jackson leveled a long list of troubling charges against the board — allegations the panel has yet to respond to, let alone refute — but this one has stuck with me. And it’s totally believable given the board’s poor handling of its duties dating back to the Nov. 6, 2012, election marked by too few voting machines, a shortage of poll workers, ridiculously long lines, misplaced ballots and legal challenges.

The public trust was shattered, and voters’ confidence in the elections process in Richland County was terribly shaken. And ever since, it seems the board has taken every opportunity to further erode that trust.

Time and again, the board has shown that it’s not capable of making the sound decisions and providing the guidance needed to protect the integrity of the voting process. Lest we forget, although former director Lillian McBride rightly shoulders much of the blame for the 2012 debacle, a consultant’s review revealed that the board didn’t provide proper and adequate oversight.

Following the botched election, the board tried to deny its authority to discipline Ms. McBride. Once it was made clear it had that power, it refused to remove the director. Once Ms. McBride resigned, the board created a deputy director’s slot in the office for her, a move that enraged many voters.

Even the director search that ended in Mr. Jackson’s hiring was a disaster. A committee conducted a flawed, secretive search; at one point a member of the board itself was barred from discussions with candidates, and the committee refused to release the names of the three finalists as required by law.

Had routine checks by The State not uncovered problems in each candidate’s work history, the public might never have learned of them. The candidates failed to reveal them, and the search committee didn’t conduct a thorough enough search to discover them.

While the other two finalists withdrew their names, Mr. Jackson hung in. The wise thing to do was start a new search. Instead, the board hired the last man standing.

Maybe it was meant to be. If the board had hired someone else, who would go along to get along, county residents wouldn’t have learned the extent of the board’s troubles. Unfortunately, Mr. Jackson’s disclosures weren’t enough to shame the elections board into changing its ways.

A day after Mr. Jackson’s tell-all press conference, the board members made yet another ill-conceived decision that will only serve to further damage the elections office’s image: They hired a fellow board member as interim director.

Sam Selph might be as straight an arrow as you can find. But it is more than clear that this board is rotten to the core; new blood is needed.

Things have deteriorated to the point that there is nothing this board can do to convince the public that it is working to conduct legitimate elections.

Citizens rightly consider their vote a most sacred trust, and it’s elections’ officials duty to safeguard that.

If what Mr. Jackson says is true, the board worked against his efforts to turn the office around. He suggests that board members’ focus was on overseeing their little fiefdom, protecting favored employees and making Richland legislators happy.

The former director said that when he wanted to make staff changes to replace incompetence with competence, he was told to stand down. When he sought to clean up past elections after discovering uncounted absentee ballots, he was told to do nothing. When he chose to stand up and do the right thing, he was labeled insubordinate and fired.

“My heart goes out to the citizens of this county because they really deserve better,” Mr. Jackson said Tuesday during an hour-long press conference.

I’m not claiming that Mr. Jackson’s story is 100 percent true; that’s rarely the case in instances such as these. But the board isn’t disputing it, and his allegations are in alignment with the way the board has conducted the public’s business over the past 16 months. It has operated largely in silence and secrecy, showing little regard for the poor image it has rightly earned.

“Everything is just done under the cloak of secrecy,” Mr. Jackson said.

Now that it has fired the professional director and hired a board member, another set of tests looms before the board in the form of municipal elections in Blythewood March 11 and Eastover April 8 as well as a more substantial challenge of the June primaries.

“My sincere hope is that the office will be ready,” Mr. Jackson said at his news conference. “I’m praying for a successful election in both March and June.”

Aren’t we all?

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

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service