RICHLAND COUNTY, SC — State investigators this week opened a criminal case on recent elections overseen by Richland County’s beleaguered elections office.
Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper, meanwhile, issued a court order Friday that threatens to undo any action taken by the elections board since his December ruling that found its merger with the voter registration office unconstitutional.
The dual developments further discredit the county office and the actions of local legislators who have been slow to act, even as the June 10 primary approaches.
Thom Berry, a spokesman for the State Law Enforcement Division, confirmed Friday that an investigation is “officially under way.”
Berry said SLED received a letter from Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson Monday, requesting that SLED look into allegations made by the former director, Howard Jackson.
SLED will present its findings to Johnson, who would then decide whether to move forward with prosecuting a case, Berry said.
“That will be a decision the solicitor’s office will make,” he said, adding, “There’s no timeline.”
Nicole Holland, the solicitor’s spokeswoman, confirmed that Johnson sent the letter, which she did not immediately make available.
In late February, the elections board fired Jackson from his job as director of the embattled elections office after just eight months in office. He responded by calling a news conference to air what he alleged were possible criminal efforts to impede elections in 2012 and 2013.
Jackson saved his sharpest words for the county’s legislative delegation and the state-appointed elections board, which he said operated under a secretive system of political patronage and nepotism, and meddled in the day-to-day operations of the county office.
On another front, Judge Cooper said he would bring both sides into court later this month for a hearing on the 10-day, temporary restraining order he issued this week, nullifying actions taken by the Richland County Board of Elections & Voter Registration since Dec. 30.
In an email circulated by the judge Friday, he wrote: “Again, I am acutely aware of the June primaries and the need for action to avoid any interruption of an open, fair and orderly election process.”
Jim Carpenter, the Greenville lawyer for the S.C. Public Interest Foundation, said legislators “missed their deadlines, doing nothing, even though they’ve known about this since last August.”
Carpenter said Friday he believes Gov. Nikki Haley should step in to appoint “some good, competent people” to the county elections board since the Richland County legislative delegation has not filled the five vacant seats.
Alex Postic, the lawyer for the county elections board, said both sides agreed the functions of the merged office must be separated and noted his clients were working toward that end.
The elections board called a meeting for Tuesday to formalize the separation, while the legislative delegation announced it was accepting applications for vacant seats on the elections board.
Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, has said all five seats are open though three members continue to serve in a “holdover status” from 2011, before the offices were merged.
Cooper ruled joining the two offices was unconstitutional because it was accomplished through a single-county, not a statewide, law.
The practical effects of the separation are unclear.
“It’s a mess that might take awhile to clean up,” Carpenter, the Greenville lawyer, said.
Some local media seized on the fact that it put Lillian McBride in charge of voter registration. But that’s been the case since January 2013, when she stepped down from the elections director job after the 2012 county election fiasco that resulted in waits of up to seven hours for some voters and prompted others to leave in frustration before casting ballots.
Samuel Selph, interim elections director, confirmed Friday that McBride’s salary and duties remain unchanged: She still oversees absentee voting and supervises the office staff who register people to vote.
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.