In an unprecedented twist to an already knotted election, state elections officials today will conduct a court-ordered recount of all Richland County ballots cast Tuesday after a lawsuit in a House race prompted state investigators to seize voting records.
Amid a swirl of legal action Thursday, the chairwoman of the Richland County Election Commission said she is sorry for the mess that created long waits at polling places, some stretching to seven hours and causing some voters to leave without casting a ballot.
“Specifically for the commission, I want to express our sincere apology to the voters of Richland County, ... to the poll workers and to the public for everything that has happened,” said Liz Crum, an attorney who has been on the local elections-oversight body for 10 years.
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“If we can’t have confidence that people’s votes count, we shouldn’t be here,” Crum said.
Updated vote totals for 35 county races, the controversial penny sales tax increase and a state constitutional amendment will be announced by the end of today, said Marci Andino, South Carolina’s director of elections, whose office will lead the recount under the watchful eyes of agents from the State Law Enforcement Division.
Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning issued a recount order Thursday after the S.C. Democratic Party sued on behalf of Democrat Joe McCulloch, who trails Republican Kirkman Finlay by 265 votes in a House District 75 count that took a last-minute flip-flop and almost 24 hours to determine an apparent winner.
The suit alleges voting irregularities, and Manning decided to have state officials confiscate records of votes cast in all races countywide. He ordered the recount, which blocks today’s scheduled certification of the election.
Andino and Crum said certification by the county election commission might occur as early as Saturday or the first of next week.
Late Thursday afternoon, SLED agents went to the Richland County Elections & Voter Registration office on Columbia’s Harden Street and took 15,000 paper ballots and computer cartridges used to tabulate results from all 729 machines used in the election, officials said.
The slowest part of the recount will be tallying paper ballots, Andino said. “We should complete it, start to finish, tomorrow.”
In Andino’s 26 years at the state elections agency, she said this is the first court-ordered, countywide recount by her office.
Judge Manning barred Richland County elections officials from participation in the recount. “The county will not play any role other than to observe,” Andino said.
One observer from each political party will be allowed to watch the recount, the judge decided. Media outlets also will be permitted to observe.
The county’s vote tally was delayed because many of its 124 precincts had insufficient and malfunctioning machines. It’s possible the county elections office, led by director Lillian McBride, violated state law that requires one machine for every 250 voters, according to some state lawmakers and an analysis by The State newspaper.
Some of the tallies, particularly a late surge in absentee votes in former Columbia City Councilman Finlay’s House 75 race, raised questions among Democrats.
A recount by state officials should alleviate concerns by Democrats who want to make sure McCulloch did not beat Finlay, S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian said.
The do-over count also should help erase questions in other county races, he said.
“We can finally put this to rest,” Harpootlian said.
Republicans said they are not protesting the recount, which is not a typical election recount triggered by state law when the outcome of a race is determined by 1 percentage point of the votes or less.
“With the amount of time Richland County spent counting the ballots,” Matt Moore, executive director of the S.C. Republican Party, said, “we don’t think this will change the results.”
Nothing can be read into partial results, Moore said. “The whole is what matters.”
Finlay’s 46-vote deficit turned into a 265-vote lead after county election officials counted the last paper absentee ballots Wednesday evening.
Finlay won 75 percent of the final 621 paper absentee votes counted. In one group of absentee ballots, Finlay, a businessman, received 267 new votes, while McCulloch, an attorney, got zero.In comparison, the presidential vote in the final round of paper absentee ballots found a similar trend favoring Republican Mitt Romney, an analysis conducted by The State newspaper showed. Romney received 2,087 votes, while President Barack Obama got 37. That’s even though the president won Richland County by a 2-to-1 margin.
Democratic officials also raised issues about some machines that needed repair or recharging of their batteries, in some cases to retrieve voting results.
County election official Crum said she and other commissioners are awaiting answers from McBride and her staff to many of the questions being raised by voters and reporters. Those questions include how many machines were assigned to each precinct and how those assignments were determined.
The newspaper’s efforts to reach McBride Thursday night were unsuccessful.
Crum issued her apology in an interview Thursday with The State. She also said:
• It was “not prudent” for McBride’s office to hold back 201 of the county’s 930 voting machines.
• Crum and other commissioners did not know that McBride’s staff in late summer determined that 45 machines were broken – nor that staffers chose not to ask the county for extra money to repair them.
• Commissioners have no authority to hire or fire McBride under the law that in July 2011 combined the county’s voter registration and elections offices. Only the county’s legislative delegation, which created the joint office, has that power. However, commissioners will have such authority over future directors.
• Some poll workers did not treat voters professionally and did not follow proper procedures to get vote totals, called “closing out” ballot boxes. “There are some poll workers who will not be hired again,” Crum said.
• A team of 18 technicians hired to problem-shoot machines were being summoned to many polling places as machines malfunctioned, sometimes because their batteries were not fully charged.
• McBride gave the commission no indications during a Nov. 1 commission meeting there might be problems on Election Day.
“I think Lillian has the ability to do the job,” Crum said. “I don’t know if she was overwhelmed.”
Some critics were less charitable.
County Councilman Seth Rose said Thursday that McBride should be removed.
“I think the legislative delegation should ask Lillian McBride to resign,” Rose said.
County Council funds the operations of McBride’s office but has no power over the staff, he said.
Some constituents have called Rose, blaming the county for the mess. “County Council has no authority over this,” he said.
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Richland County Democrats' petition seeking a temporary restraining order
Richland County Democrats' temporary restraining order (amended)