THE MAIN reason the Legislature has spent more than a year not fixing the election system that brought us Lillian McBride and Howard Jackson and now Sam Selph — and eight-hour waits to vote and uncounted ballots — is that legislators in the rest of the state don’t understand that Richland County is the canary in the coal mine. They insist that those endless lines and ballots that turn up a year after the fact, uncounted, are unique to Richland County.
They’re not, but let’s pretend for argument’s sake that the problem is unique to Richland County. It still isn’t a Richland County problem.
Not when you count the ballots for all those legislative districts that cross county lines from Richland into Lexington and Kershaw and Sumter and Newberry and Lee counties. Not when you count the ballots in the 2nd Congressional District. Or the 6th. Not when you count the ballots for attorney general or U.S. Senate. Or governor.
We know votes cast in Richland County aren’t always counted. Who’s to say they won’t get miscounted, or overcounted, in the next election? In such a Republican state, having votes miscounted or voters going home without voting in a county with one of the highest populations of Democrats won’t turn a lot of elections. But it could make a difference in a close race.
We don’t think elections should be treated as county matters, particularly since the races that most of us care most about cross county lines. But since most legislators remain unwilling to give up their power to appoint their county election commissioners, there’s little hope that they will abolish those local boards anytime soon and turn control of county election offices over to the State Election Commission. And we need action now.
Fortunately, there’s a way to inject some accountability into this system without abolishing those county commissions.
H.3198, by Richland Reps. James Smith, Mia McLeod, Beth Bernstein and Nathan Ballentine, gives the director of the state agency the power to order county election employees fired if they fail to follow state law. If county election commissioners refused to act, that would constitute “malfeasance” — one of the few reasons for which they can be removed from office.
The bill also would turn control of counting ballots over to the state if the county agency doesn’t certify them within 48 hours of an election.
There’s nothing radical about this: The county boards retain complete control as long as they see to it that the law is obeyed. All this legislation does is give someone outside those boards the power to make them obey the law if they don’t.
The bill, which was approved unanimously by the House Judiciary Committee and awaits a vote in the full House, won’t solve all of the problems with Richland County’s system. Or with the statewide system. But it will go a long way toward ensuring voters that their elections will be run according to state law and that their votes will be counted — and that other voters’ miscounted votes won’t diminish the value of their own.