Just after 4 p.m. Friday, SLED agents again packed 154,000 Richland County ballots and vote-counting equipment into heavy-duty, black containers.
They secured the tubs with blue zip-ties, sealed them with yellow tape, then wheeled them from the room.
“There they go again,” someone said, drawing chuckles for the grim humor as the contested ballots were locked away under order of a judge.
This time it was Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal who directed agents with State Law Enforcement Division to stop state election officials from recounting the ballots.
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On Thursday, a circuit court judge had instructed the agents to stop Richland County election officials from finishing their original audit of the votes.
It’s still unclear when Richland County’s mess of an election will be untangled.
A Supreme Court hearing has not yet been set. But both sides’ written arguments are due to the court by noon Tuesday.
Voters stood in long lines to vote, some for six or seven hours, complaining that there weren’t enough machines. Some walked away without voting.
Then, problems with counting the ballots meant election results weren’t available until Wednesday evening.
On Thursday, in response to a complaint filed by apparently defeated House 75 candidate Joe McCulloch, Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning ordered the county’s certification process stopped. And he ordered state – not county – officials to recount ballots cast throughout the county, in 35 races and for the penny sales tax increase and a state constitutional question.
But the state’s GOP argued Friday in a filing to the Supreme Court that Republican Kirkman Finlay had beaten McCullloch and that Manning did not have the authority to order a recount that would affect the House District 75 race.
Toal agreed and stopped the state-run recount at about 4 p.m. Friday, about an hour after it had gotten under way.
The Supreme Court’s order isn’t the only legal challenge to the election’s results.
A formal protest of the penny sales tax outcome has been filed with the county election commission by attorney Rick Reames III of the Nexsen Pruet law firm. Reames declined to say who he is representing but said in a Thursday letter to the commission that the protest is based on the county failing to provide enough voting machines, as required by state law.
Richland County elections commission chairwoman Liz Crum said Friday afternoon the commission will not take up the penny vote protest until other legal battles are settled. The penny tax passed by about 9,300 votes.
The dueling legal maneuvers, the protest and the recount combine to put the commission and the election in “a holding pattern,” Crum told The State newspaper. “We’re going to do whatever we’re told to do by the courts.”
The state-run recount was expected to begin around noon Friday. It was delayed repeatedly until 3 p.m., in part to allow SLED agents time to go to five precincts and pick up five voting machines whose votes had not been tallied, according to Crum and S.C. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.
The machines had been ready to use but were not used by voters, Crum said. That means they could not have affected the recount, though it shows that not all the vote-ready machines were made available to voters, she said.
Crum told The State newspaper Thursday that some machines were broken or their batteries were not fully charged. She said county election officials had 930 machines but that 201 of the machines weren’t being used. And some broke down during the day.
It was clear Tuesday that county officials did not meet the state’s requirement to have one machine for every 250 voters.
Crum has apologized. Elections director Lillian McBride, who actually runs the county’s elections, has not commented since Tuesday night.
The fight in court Friday turned on Manning’s authority to step in.
The GOP’s petition argues that even if Manning had the power to intervene in a legislative race, he did not have the authority to order a recount.
In announcing the filing of the GOP appeal of Manning’s ruling, Republican Party executive director Matt Moore addressed how votes were counted. “There are clear legal provisions and procedures which dictate the conduct of elections and the certification of results. These are not being followed.”
“The voters have spoken, all ballots have been counted and House District 75 selected Kirkman Finlay as its new representative,” he said in a statement. “Too many laws have been ignored in Richland County, and we refuse to let it continue.”
“No, they’re not,” state Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian said of Moore’s assertion that the votes were properly counted.
Harpootlian filed the lawsuit Thursday for McCulloch that triggered Manning’s directive for a recount. He said his suit, backed by complaints from voters about insufficient voting machines and other missteps on Election Day, will yield an accurate count.
“There’s no harm in letting this go forward,” Harpootlian said of a state-run recount. “It might not change anything. Why is it the Republicans are so afraid of a recount?”
In the wake of the legal challenges, the Richland County legislative delegation canceled a hearing it scheduled for Tuesday to review what went wrong. The delegation appoints county election commissioners as well as McBride.
Meanwhile, a group of voters is calling for a new election because of the shortage of voting machines, long lines at the polls and questions about how those machines functioned and ballots were counted.
GOP consultant R.J. Shealy and unsuccessful County Council candidate Michael Letts say they will hold a news conference Monday to challenge other aspects of the election as well, including whether machine shortages happened mostly in areas that were likely to oppose the controversial penny sales tax ballot question.
Letts lost the County Council District 8 race to incumbent Jim Manning, according to results released Wednesday.
In yet another development in the knotted election, Crum acknowledged Friday that she is stepping down from the commission in mid-March, when her latest term ends.
She said she submitted a letter to the legislative delegation on Monday.
“This had nothing to do with this (election controversy),” Crum said. “At some point, you’ve got to let new people in. I believe in succession planning.” She has been on the commission 12 years.