Columbia election will cost up to $71,000 more than budgeted

07/25/2013 11:00 PM

07/25/2013 11:05 PM

City Hall is being asked by the county elections office to come up with $71,000 more to pay for Columbia’s first fall election that already is to be its most expensive ever.

The nearly 60 percent increase from the $120,000 City Council approved in June is based on the latest calculation of $191,000 the city received July 3 from new Richland County Elections & Voter Registration director Howard Jackson.

“The final bill is going to be less than that,” Jackson said Thursday of the $191,269 price tag. “This is the worse-case scenario ... including a runoff.”

The Nov. 5 election will be the first big challenge for the county elections office since the fiasco during the November presidential election. That botched election triggered lawsuits, ballot seizures, the demotion of then-director Lillian McBride and left untold numbers of voters disenfranchised by waiting in lines for as long as seven hours.

Besides choosing a majority of City Council, voters countywide will decide whether to approve a $59 million bond to pay for library improvements, and residents of Arcadia Lakes will choose Town Council members.

Jackson, formerly the elections director in Orangeburg County, said his office revised the budget for Columbia’s election several times before his arrival. The only one that bears his imprint is the itemized, four-page budget Jackson submitted on July 3, he said.

City Council has yet to take up that budget request.

Columbia budget director Missy Caughman said: “We’re still trying to validate the numbers (from Jackson’s office). The biggest question is, how are we going to pay for it?”

The cost of a Columbia municipal election has been averaging about $60,000, said City Council clerk Erika Moore.

Her office organizes city elections and is where candidates file for office. Columbia has its own election commission, but it hears protests and certifies election results. It does not conduct elections.

The county election office’s proposal raises the total number of city polling locations to 71 and the number of poll workers to 360, Moore said. During the April 2012 election – its most recent municipal election – the city opened 53 polling sites and used 248 poll workers.

The increase in polling locations is being achieved by opening existing sites that previously had been combined with nearby precincts, Moore said. No newly created precincts will be open in November. The 12 inside the city limits of Columbia that were OK’d by the Legislature during this session will not take effect until Jan. 1.

The city and county also are finalizing a five-year agreement that would have the county elections office operate Columbia elections. On Tuesday, Richland County Council approved the agreement, but the city has yet to sign off on it.

Last year’s election was the first in which the city had a written agreement with the county, Moore said.

Columbia’s effort to avoid an election as tangled as the one the county had last fall resulted in a budget that calls for using 132 more poll workers and opening 18 more polling locations than in the last city election in April 2012, Moore said.

What’s new

A controversial election law change – the state’s Voter ID law – already is in effect statewide. That means Richland County and Columbia voters will need to show at the polls one of the following:

• A driver’s license from South Carolina
• An ID card issued by the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles
• A voter registration card with photo from South Carolina
• A federal military ID
• A U.S. passport.

But the fall elections will not be subject to preclearance by the U.S. Justice Department as a result of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, according to state election officials.

The justices invalidated a portion of the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act that spells out the formula for determining which parts of the nation fall under the preclearance provision.

Any election irregularities may continue to be reported to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbia as they have in the past, said Beth Drake, spokeswoman for federal prosecutors in South Carolina.

Why we are voting in November

City Council last year decided to move elections from April of even years to November of odd years. That broke a tradition that dates at least to the 1950s.

Part of the reasoning was that city leaders wanted to encourage more voter turnout. The turnout in the April 2012 races for two contested seats attracted a meager 12 percent of eligible voters, according to records at the State Election Commission. That’s about one-third of the 37 percent turnout in the highly contested April 2010 campaign that gave the capital city its first African-American mayor.

But odd-year elections, which have become increasingly popular among South Carolina municipalities, will remain separated from the even-year elections for legislative, statewide and federal seats, which draw large numbers to the polls.

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