Local legislators are unwilling to fill vacancies on the board that oversees Richland County elections until they know the fate of a bill that could merge election and voter registration boards statewide, state Rep. Jimmy Bales said last week.
The bill comes before the Senate for a vote Tuesday, then returns to the House for acceptance of changes.
If passed into law, the Senate version would require the county to merge its two election-related boards, as it had done in 2011. The action was undone by an August court ruling that found legislators’ actions unconstitutional because the change was accomplished by a local law.
In practical terms, some say, the legislation will determine whether there’s a majority of three new board members seated on the Richland County Election Commission or the potential for an all-new board.
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Makeup of the state-appointed board has been an issue because of vote-counting mistakes going back four years and chaos in the 2012 general election that some say should have forced an overhaul.
Fifty-one people have applied for the board – more than GOP Sen. John Courson has seen in his 30 years of service.
The 16-member Richland County legislative delegation must decide who they want on the board, which is responsible for hiring the county election director and verifying election results. Rep. Joe Neal, a Democrat and chairman of the legislation delegation, said diversity is key in terms of race, geographic representation and political affiliation. State law requires at least one member be Republican, the minority party among the county delegation.
Bales, a Democrat who chairs the legislative appointments committee, said its members are unwilling to discuss who they might want to appoint to the election commission until they know the outcome of pending legislation.
The House version allows counties to merge their election and voter-registration boards. The Senate version requires it.
“Nobody on the appointments committee wants to do anything until something’s done with the bill,” Bales said.
If the bill requires all 46 counties to merge their elections board with their voter registration boards, that would make legal the system that Richland County had adopted before it was struck down by a local court.
“If that’s going to be the law, we’ll go back to the old system, I would assume,” Bales said, “and then the people that were on the commission that want to stay – we would probably just keep them.”
Two long-time board members, Adelle Adams and Elaine DuBose, have reapplied for seats on the five-member board.
But Rep. James Smith, a lawyer who has helped guide resolution of the lawsuit in recent weeks, said the terms of Adams and DuBose have expired and they should not be automatically returned to the board.
Neal, for one, was unwilling to say last week whether he’s willing to keep incumbents on the board, given election missteps going back to 2010. “I don’t want to characterize their service,” he said.
But Courson said the selection of election-board members is a good-government issue. “I’m not going to vote for an incumbent, period.”
Meanwhile, the senior senator said there’s a possibility the legislation will be amended to allow those counties that have separate voter registration and election boards to stay separate, if that’s what legislators in those counties prefer.