COLUMBIA, SC — Richland County legislators will ask the county to provide legal representation as they move to separate the merged elections and voter registration boards, Rep. Joe Neal said.
The move would clarify how legislators should go about setting up two offices joined by a 2011 law now deemed unconstitutional.
“The delegation has made the decision that it is going to happen, and we’re moving to go to court to make sure it is done according to the way the court has required us to do,” Neal said Friday. “It’s my understanding we need a court order.”
Neal’s revelation came as 40 people applied by Thursday’s deadline to fill a vacancy on the Richland County Elections & Voter Registration Board – and as rumors swirled there could be more seats to fill.
When there were separate offices, there were two boards. But it’s not clear who would serve on the re-established boards, with two separate offices and directors.
“There is some question as to whether or not all the members of the (elections) board will remain,” said Neal, D-Richland and chairman of the 16-member legislative delegation.
Three people remain on the five-person elections board as it was in 2011: Adell Adams, Elaine DuBose and Allen Dowdy. Herbert Sims was seated in 2012 and Samuel Selph in 2013. Selph resigned last month to take over as interim election director as controversy continued to dog operations of the elections office.
Neal said he expects the legislative delegation to make its request for a lawyer at a meeting Tuesday night. That’s because County Council is required to fund the office, even though legislators appoint the elections board.
“We’re trying to move as quickly as we can,” Neal said.
The performance of the citizen elections board has been watched closely since November 2012, one of the most bungled elections in state history. The county office that’s overseen by the board failed to provide enough machines, and some voters had to wait in line as long as seven hours to cast ballots. Untold numbers left their precincts in frustration without voting.
Since then, a court ruling last year established the 2011 merger of separate elections and voter registration boards was unconstitutional, because it was done with a local law affecting just Richland County.
Neal said he would expect separate boards of elections and voter registration, and for each to have separate directors – just as it was before 2011.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland, said he had not set a meeting among the legislators tasked with recommending someone to fill an empty seat on the five-member elections board.
Bales said there’s just one vacancy – to replace Selph, who stepped in as interim director after he and the others fired director Howard Jackson just eight months into the job. They did not provide a reason for Jackson’s dismissal.
In late February, the legislative delegation staff sent out a news release seeking applicants to fill two vacancies on the board.
But Bales and Neal agreed that was a mistake. They said Dowdy, the elections board chairman, is not stepping down after all.
Rep. Nathan Ballentine said he’s not sure how many vacancies exist and what’s planned to ensure the county is in compliance with the law.
“We’ve had no delegation meeting to discuss this very important question,” Ballentine said by email Friday, “and if the board is unconstitutional, as a judge has ruled, shouldn’t we dissolve the board?
“I’ve been very disappointed in the lack of openness and lack of urgency from our delegation during this entire fiasco.”
In recent weeks, the advocacy group Common Cause and the county Republican party have recruited people to apply for the board.
“There’s a feeling of outrage, I think, and that triggers people to apply because they think they can help remedy the problem,” Common Cause director John Crangle said Friday.
“I hope this is a wake-up call for more transparency,” said Eaddy Roe Willard, chairwoman of the county GOP. “I feel like with a fresh face on the board that they will see the board’s actions through the eyes of the voters.”
Legislative delegation staff has been reluctant to say who has applied for the board, though some applicants have shared their interest.
Among the applicants is Duncan Buell, a computer scientist who is an expert in electronic voting machines and helped unravel the 2011 election mess.
Kenneth Gaines, a University of South Carolina professor of law, said he applied. So did Chris Kenney, a lawyer who represented the state Democratic party in what he called “the ballot-gate disaster” of 2012, and Pete Kennedy, a poll worker who has attended every elections board meeting in the past year.
Kenney said the lack of willingness to say who has applied for the board is an example of “the single most damaging aspect” of the elections mess – a lack of openness.
“There’s a sense of those standing on the outside, observing the process, that it’s been less than transparent,” Kenney said.
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.