Attorney Steve Hamm on Thursday gave the Richland County Election Commission a blueprint on how to run a smooth election, saying it is crucial that the office regain public trust after November’s election “disaster.”
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“As we now know, there was a significant failure to place a sufficient number of voting machines in precincts,” Hamm said in an afternoon meeting at the county administration building.
But he also said that a former part-time staffer’s decision to reduce the number of machines at precincts, even if that person’s actions did not change the outcome of any race or ballot question, was serious. He said he passed what he learned along to law enforcement agents, confirming what many have suspected since an FBI agent attended a public review of the botched election in December.
Hamm said, too, that:
• The county’s goal should be for no one to wait longer than an hour to vote.
• The executive director always must know exactly where staffers stand in preparing for an election.
Hamm was hired by county officials to assess what went wrong Nov. 6 in Richland County, when many voters waited four, five and six hours to vote and some simply left the polls without casting a ballot. Ineptitude, lax management, badly maintained machines and, in some cases, poorly trained poll workers, caused the problems, Hamm said in two earlier, preliminary reports.
On Thursday, after eight months of interviewing county elections staff and commissioners and studying office procedures, Hamm made recommendations on how to fix the problems. He said he concluded that the people who run county elections are good people who must understand the position of public trust they hold.
The right to vote “is a treasure,” Hamm said, seeming to lecture the staffers and board members. And the public’s ability to cast ballots in a timely fashion on an election day should not be undermined by poor performance on the part of those responsible for carrying out the election, he said.
Hamm’s recommendations include requiring new county elections executive director Howard Jackson to deliver monthly reports to the commission on what staff members are doing, as well as to give commission members the latest monthly count on registered voter numbers.
Another key step, Hamm said, is for Jackson to develop a program to monitor regularly how well the county’s 900-plus voting machines are working and to move immediately to address any malfunctions before an election day to ensure that working machines are put at polling places.
The goal should be for all voters to spend no more than an hour in a line waiting to vote, Hamm said.
During his 40-minute presentation, Hamm at times sounded like an evangelist of democracy, explaining to the five commissioners and Jackson how important it is to get things right in coming months. The next big elections in Richland County will be in November for Columbia City Council and mayor, as well as a countywide referendum on library funding.
“You need to begin a process that will in fact regain the public confidence of the citizens of Richland County,” Hamm said. “Every decision you make needs to be prefaced by the question, ‘Is the decision we’re about to make going to help us regain public trust?’ If it is not, you all need to think seriously about whether you’re making a good decision.”
In previous reports, Hamm made public his conclusion that commissioners, former elections director Lillian McBride and the staff failed to do their duties. Nearly everyone involved has agreed with his judgment. Commissioners failed to monitor McBride, McBride failed to properly supervise her staff and the staff failed to check and double-check procedures they should have carried out for a smooth election, Hamm has said.
Even though one employee helped set in motion what became an election fiasco, Hamm said, the commissioners, McBride and staff for months failed to notice the matter – even though they should have.
Hamm, who described the former employee’s actions as “sabotage, perhaps innocently,” declined to identify the person or which law enforcement agencies he has talked with. But he said he has talked “several times” with them.
In December, Mark Moore, a top prosecutor from the local U.S. Attorney’s office, turned up with an FBI agent at the State House complex’s Senate Office Building to monitor a public hearing on November’s election failures about. The U.S. attorney’s office has refused comment.
Hamm said one of his top recommendations is that the commissioners and the Richland County legislative delegation of more than a dozen state representatives and senators should lobby for a state law for longer election hours.
Today’s busy times cry out for allowing people more flexibility to get to polls, said Hamm, who suggested hours of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Currently, state law mandates that polling places be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Longer hours would also be less expensive than buying new voting machines, Hamm said.
Hamm also strongly recommended that commissioners hold meetings in the future with all poll workers, since they are the people who see any problems first-hand and can bring concerns to light before an election. A major problem last election, Hamm said, was that numerous poll workers emailed and called elections staff to warn them there weren’t enough machines planned for their precincts. But staffers disregarded them, Hamm said.
Despite the massive election “systems crash,” Hamm said the problems didn’t affect the outcome of any of last November’s numerous local elections, including the referendum for the penny sales tax increase, which won by some 6,000 votes.
Commissioners, including chairman Allen Dowdy, said they were pleased with Hamm’s report. Already, they said they have carried out two elections this spring that went smoothly – one for the town of Forest Acres, and another for a local school board seat.
The five commissioners also thanked interim voting board director Jasper Salmond, who took over after former director McBride resigned last January. Jackson, who started work Monday, said he is already taking steps to implement some of Hamm’s recommendations and will assemble a detailed policy manual on what should be done before an election.