May 17, 2013

Editorial: Richland County’s unaccountable elections board’s days should be numbered

WHY DOES the Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration as we know it even exist?

WHY DOES the Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration as we know it even exist?

Considering the unaccountable, poorly led body’s sorry stewardship, that’s a question the county’s state legislators, who appoint its members, are obligated to answer.

The election board’s job is to oversee elections and the executive tasked with making sure the process runs smoothly. But over the months since the disastrous Nov. 6 election marked by too few voting machines, a shortage of poll workers, ridiculously long lines, misplaced ballots and legal challenges, the hapless board has done absolutely nothing to begin rebuilding the public’s shattered confidence.

At every turn, it has shown inexplicably bad judgment, raising legitimate questions about its ability to make sound decisions and provide the oversight needed to protect the integrity of the voting process.

The board has failed repeatedly to act in the public’s best interest. While former director Lillian McBride shoulders much of the blame for the botched election, a preliminary report noted that the board had failed to ask important questions.

After the election fiasco, the board initially refused to acknowledge that it had the power to discipline the director; when the panel finally acknowledged its authority, it refused to remove Ms. McBride. Once Ms. McBride resigned, the board bent over backward — much farther than it should have — to accommodate her, creating a deputy director’s slot that pays $74,600.

When it embarked upon the single most significant task involved in rebuilding public confidence and trust — hiring a credible director — the board blew it. It created a search committee led by a member who had just joined the board. That search committee chairman caused tension by barring a fellow member of the Board of Elections from discussions with candidates; he also played a role in the committee’s refusal to release the names of the three finalists as required by law.

But The State secured the names of the finalists and, through routine checks, discovered problems in each candidate’s work history. As troubling as it is that the candidates failed to reveal the matters, it is also unacceptable that the committee didn’t conduct a thorough enough search to discover them.

When two of the finalists withdrew their names, the only prudent thing to do was to start a new search. Instead, the Board of Elections hired the remaining finalist — Howard Jackson, the Orangeburg County elections director.

Mr. Jackson failed to tell search committee members that he had been investigated in 2008 for election-law violations involving alleged absentee ballot irregularities.

The State Law Enforcement Division found no wrongdoing, but his failure to be upfront about it doesn’t engender trust, which is essential to turning the Richland County office around. In addition to overseeing daily operations, elections and voter registration, the director must now make repairing and restoring the public’s trust a priority.

We don’t know Mr. Jackson; he might turn out to be the best director Richland County has ever had — a director who runs smooth elections that boost voter confidence. We certainly wish him well.

But the fact remains that Richland County Council and county residents have had to sit helplessly by as this mess has played out. All that taxpayers have received for their trouble is $153,000 in legal bills that the inept office with the bloated budget wants County Council to pay.

This board and office exist because of the archaic system that allows state legislators to meddle in the election process in their home counties. It’s a system that’s rotten to the core.

We believe that elections are a state responsibility, and so the State Election Commission should run them. But as long as the Legislature insists on requiring counties to do the job, legislators need to butt out and hand control of the county offices over to the county councils. Starting in Richland County.

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