Bolton: Richland lawmakers should take blame for voting mess

11/09/2012 12:00 AM

11/09/2012 12:45 AM

IF THOSE CALLING for Richland County’s voter registration and elections director to resign over Tuesday’s voting debacle are justified — and they just may be — then what should happen to the lawmakers who shoved her into a position she apparently wasn’t ready for in the first place?

Yes, Lillian McBride and her staff are responsible for making elections run smoothly, something they failed miserably at on Tuesday. But make no mistake. The buck ultimately stops with Richland County legislators, some of whom have declared they’re going to get to the bottom of this mess in a hearing next week. I hope they’re prepared to look in the mirror.

After all, it was the county’s legislative delegation that voted unanimously last year to appoint Ms. McBride director of the newly merged Richland County Voter Registration office and the Election Commission.

Mike Cinnamon oversaw elections admirably for almost four decades, but the delegation hardly gave him the first look. In effect, it forced Mr. Cinnamon out the door and put someone in charge whose expertise was in making sure voters got registered, not ensuring they could vote in a timely manner. Mr. Cinnamon retired, taking his vast knowledge with him.

At the time, Sen. Darrell Jackson, who chairs the delegation, and Sen. John Courson said both candidates were qualified but that Mr. Cinnamon had garnered no support. Sen. Jackson went on to say that he supported Ms. McBride because he wanted someone who could serve long term and who had more supervisory experience. As director over voter registration, Ms. McBride oversaw seven full-time and five part-time employees, while Mr. Cinnamon had a one-person staff between elections.

But how do you usher out someone with such institutional knowledge and an admirable record of running elections without somehow making sure things can continue to operate well?

Ms. McBride apparently had another idea: One of the first things she did was hire Gary Baum and Cheryl Goodwin away from the S.C. Election Commission. Mr. Baum became deputy director and Ms. Goodwin voting-systems coordinator, with the job of maintaining the county’s 1,000 voting machines and training poll workers.

There was a brief discussion about keeping Mr. Cinnamon on as a consultant — boy, he would have come in handy this election cycle — but that never materialized.

Frankly, had the delegation been thinking, it could have gotten the best of both worlds by keeping Mr. Cinnamon on as director — or whatever it took — and letting him train Ms. McBride as his successor.

But the fact is that the delegation never should have had a hand in this. The Election Commission should be a department of Richland County government overseen by the administrator, who works for County Council.

While it was a good idea to merge voting functions into a seamless operation, the law should have ended the unacceptable practice of state lawmakers meddling in local government affairs, and given County Council or its designee the right to appoint the members of the board overseeing the new department and choose the new director.

Despite Home Rule, state legislators continue to trample upon local elected officials’ right to govern their own communities. Not only does the Richland delegation control elections, but it appoints the recreation commission as well. And in each instance, the County Council has no control beyond providing funding. And even that’s not optional in this case: The law merging the offices dictated that the County Council approve a $1.2 million budget — an increase of nearly $400,000 over the two separate offices’ budgets.

It makes no sense for County Council to take the political heat for levying taxes to operate the office — and get beat up for horrible voting experiences such as those on Tuesday — when it’s county legislators who effectively appoint the people who run it. If the council is paying the freight and getting the complaints, it should decide how the office is operated, and set the budget.

Legislators aren’t trained to stage elections, and they don’t have the expertise to choose professionals to do the job either. They should either give the county governments control over local elections or give that responsibility — and the necessary funding — to the State Election Commission.

Had the county or its designee been deciding who would run the commission, there likely would have been a more objective process — one based on the candidates’ ability and skills — than what normally takes place when elected officials are making a decision.

It’s no surprise that critics suggest that Ms. McBride was selected for political reasons, not because she could run elections.

Sen. Jackson told me Wednesday that some folks are trying to make Ms. McBride the scapegoat. But he acknowledged that her lack of experience and the restructuring of the two offices probably played a role in Tuesday’s messy elections.

Would Mr. Cinnamon have been a better choice? When it comes to staging elections, history says yes, without a doubt. But who knows if he would have been the best choice to run the merged office?

But while the focus now is on how the office performed, the bigger problem surrounds who chose those who run the operation.

Maybe lawmakers thought they were doing Ms. McBride a favor. Instead, they set her up to fail.

Her office wasn’t ready to handle the robust turnout of her first presidential election. The result was disastrous: There weren’t enough voting machines — practically or legally — at precincts, some voters had to wait as long as seven hours to cast their ballots, and it took nearly another whole day to tally final results. Some people didn’t get to vote at all because they had to leave for work or other responsibilities, while others simply got exasperated and left.

Now we have voters and candidates questioning the legitimacy of the election — mostly folks on the losing side, of course — with some people suggesting a revote. While I understand their frustrations, a revote is not only impractical, but there’s no legal or logical basis for one. We’ve got the results, though delayed. Let’s move on and deal with the real issue at hand: What happened, and how do we make sure it doesn’t happen again?

Let’s see what the county’s legislators do next week once they hear from Ms. McBride and her staff. Whatever they do, it will fall far short if it doesn’t include taking responsibility for this fiasco and pledging to make a change that would allow the county or the State Election Commission to run local elections.

As for whether Ms. McBride will survive it all: I’m confident that if she does, this will never happen again. But you can’t help but wonder whether this was so colossal that she won’t get another chance.

Reach Mr. Bolton at

(803) 771-8631 or

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