Richland County Council on Tuesday tentatively approved a fraction of the additional $1 million the county Voter Registration and Elections Office has requested for this fiscal year.
And the $229,000 in extra money council members tentatively OK’d came with a price: an audit of the elections office’s practices and spending.
Two weeks after council gave preliminary approval to the election office’s full request in a preliminary vote, members this time struck $855,000 the office requested to cover its shortfall through the remainder of the financial year, which ends June 30.
“It seems as though they took away what they gave last week,” said Marjorie Johnson, who heads the Richland County election board.
Richland County elections director Samuel Selph said he is optimistic the council in its third and final vote will approve the entire $1 million.
The vote followed an hour of discussion in which council members grilled Selph about the request and his office’s spending. Some council members bemoaned that state lawmakers require the county to fund the office but give it no oversight on how the money is used.
A few members, such as Joyce Dickerson, said they struggled to make sense of invoices and tables the office gave council members before Tuesday.
“I went through all the invoices. I couldn’t put them all together,” said Dickerson. “I couldn’t balance them out.”
Selph told the council that the office for years has been underfunded. It requested $3 million during budget discussions last spring but was granted just $1.2 million, he said.
It needs the extra $1 million to prevent what could be “a total fiasco” at polling precincts during this year’s elections, he said. The office would use the money to pay poll workers, repair and purchase batteries for voting machines, purchase printers and cover other expenses, he said.
Council member Greg Pearce suggested the council approve an audit of the office’s spending and practices before giving it more money. But council, after hearing such an audit would prevent any money from reaching the elections office for several months, ultimately voted to approve $229,000 along with the audit.
Selph said he welcomes the audit and invited council members themselves to come by his office.
The request wasn’t without supporters on the council. Norman Jackson several times backed awarding the full amount, saying it is crucial to avoid a re-run of the 2012 Richland County elections, in which a shortage of polling machines caused long lines and kept some residents from voting.
Jackson said he was “sort of confused” council members were asking so many questions about the elections office’s spending.
“To do something efficiently, it costs,” Jackson said. “We can cut corners all we want, but it’s about the citizens we serve.”
Councilmembers Pearce, Seth Rose, Bill Malinowski and Torrey Rush voted against awarding the money.