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February 24, 2014

Embattled Richland County elections director fired

Howard Jackson has been fired after eight months as director of the Richland County Elections & Voter Registration Office.

Howard Jackson has been fired after eight months as director of the Richland County Elections & Voter Registration Office.

Jackson, 43, was dismissed Monday on a 4-1 vote by the election board, with member Adell Adams the only “no” vote.

His last day in the office will be Feb. 28.

“Things were not going right,” board member Samuel Selph said in confirming the board’s decision.

Jackson, who was hired at an annual salary of $78,000, said he would be holding a news conference Tuesday to discuss the turn of events as well as recent elections.

He was brought in by the board after the election disaster of November 2012, when too few machines were deployed and voters waited in long lines, some for as long as seven hours, to cast ballots. Then-director Lillian McBride, who oversaw that election, was demoted to another position.

But the office was embarrassed again in November, when it was revealed that 1,114 votes went uncounted after a personal electronic ballot, or PEB, containing absentee ballots was overlooked. That election included a race for mayor and the Richland County Library tax increase.

Efforts to reach other board members, including the chairman, Allen Dowdy, were unsuccessful Monday.

The board hired Jackson, former director of Orangeburg County’s elections office, after two other finalists for the job dropped out.

The board went ahead and offered him the job, though some members of the Richland County legislative delegation suggested it should scrap the process and start over.

A shadow was cast over the selection process when a search committee refused to release the three finalists’ names publicly, as required by law, and when the board continued to hold closed-door meetings, despite saying their goal was to rebuild public trust.

Even the new director himself prompted concerns, when it was discovered Jackson was the focus of a SLED investigation over the distribution and collection of absentee ballots shortly after he was hired in Orangeburg. He did not disclose the probe to the board during an initial interview, calling the matter a non-story. SLED found no criminal wrongdoing.

Norman Jackson, chairman of Richland County Council, was surprised by the news, as was Sen. John Courson, R-Richland.

Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, chairman of the Richland County legislative delegation, said he knew the board had a special meeting Monday. And he knew board members had planned on discussing some issues with Jackson.

“I knew there were some discussions with him but I didn’t know they would terminate him,” Neal said. “I can’t say I’m surprised as much as I simply wasn’t expecting it.”

Neal would not say what issues existed between the board and Jackson, including talking about problems with missing ballots during the Columbia mayoral election.

While Neal said he knew about the meeting, he did not see an agenda or know if other topics were to be addressed Monday by the board.

Selph said he did not know whether Jackson had recently hired a deputy director. “I don’t know specifically what action he has taken within the last 30 days,” he said.

The board plans to meet later this week or by Monday at the latest to discuss what to do next, including whether to hire an interim director, Selph said.

Pete Kennedy, a poll worker who routinely attends election board meetings, said that the board met privately for “well over two hours” and that Jackson joined the board for about half that time.

“They brought this on themselves,” he said. “Nothing’s changed.”

Kennedy said with Selph on the board, he expects “to see some changes, but we’re going to have to wait to see how the next interview process goes, whether it’s an open process.”

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