Election Endorsements

November 28, 2012

Bolton: Something dramatic needed to restore voter confidence

The Richland County legislative delegation hearing on the botched Nov. 6 election produced its share of drams, but it fell far short on ideas to address the serious blow delivered to the public’s trust and confidence. While I’m sure officials understand that the damage that was done is serious, I’m not convinced they know how to fix it.

MONDAY’S hearing by the Richland County legislative delegation to explore why the Nov. 6 election went so wrong had all the elements for a real drama.

First, there were the Richland legislators, local bosses who make the rules and call the shots — all on someone else’s dime. That someone else would be Richland County Council, which is forced to levy taxes to fund the Elections and Voter Registration office but has no say over what it does.

Then there were the members of the county elections board and its chair, Liz Crum, all appointed by the delegation to oversee Elections and Voter Registration but unsure of — or unwilling to accept — their real power as it relates to disciplining the current director.

Finally, there was Lillian McBride, the director of elections and voter registration, who some had deemed untouchable despite some people’s desire that she be fired for her office’s failures on Election Day.

And what a drama they produced.

While everyone was engaged in Ms. Crum’s credible, calm opening presentation, Ms. McBride’s testimony was the most anticipated. She hadn’t spoken publicly outside of a few comments on Nov. 6, in which she blamed her predecessor, at least in part, for the debacle.

On Monday, Ms. McBride “humbly” apologized. “There was a mistake, and it had a very drastic consequence,” she said. Ultimately, she pointed a finger at an unnamed subordinate whom she said misread information she provided, mistaking the number of voting cartridges for the number of voting machines that were to be placed at each polling place.

The result was too few voting machines out in the field, leading to an inexcusably botched election that included ridiculously long lines.

Rep. Todd Rutherford, an attorney, sensed a smoking gun.

“Who was that employee?” he asked.

But Sen. Darrell Jackson, who leads the delegation, stepped in before Ms. McBride could answer. What’s a good drama without intrigue?

Of course, Sen. Jackson added to the theater. Expressing disgust over conspiracy theories about efforts to tilt the elections, Mr. Jackson posed several questions to Ms. McBride to debunk such notions. She denied claims that she is related to former Rep. Frank McBride. She said she did not have a stake in the transportation sales tax. And, no, no delegation member has a business relationship with her office.

Democratic Sen. Joel Lourie injected a bit of high drama when he dressed down Rep. Nathan Ballentine, a Republican, for an op-ed that ran in The State Nov. 15. His column suggested there needed to be a criminal investigation into the election mess.

“I for one was greatly offended,” Mr. Lourie said. He said Mr. Ballentine essentially blamed the Democratic majority and made a partisan issue of a local matter. He said historically local matters are taken care of in-house. (You know: “What happens on the Mile, stays on the Mile. Always has.”)

“I think you owe us an apology,” Mr. Lourie said.

There was even a threat of a future shakedown. As discussion turned to the possibility of the county needing new voting machines, Sen. John Scott said the state purchased the current machines with federal funds and stipulated in law that local governments would purchase future machines, at a cost to Richland County of $3 million or more.

Sen. Scott said County Council already should have been preparing to buy new equipment. “It’s time for y’all to begin looking at how we buy some new machines,” he said.

At the start of the hearing, I jokingly asked a couple of Richland council members if they had brought a quorum along just in case they had to amend their budget. They chuckled. But they didn’t laugh at Mr. Scott’s comments.

Oh, did I mention the heroes?

A majority of the delegation members came to Ms. McBride’s defense. While they’re concerned, they don’t see her as the real problem.

“Everybody is looking for somebody to throw under the bus in this,” Sen. Lourie said. “I’m more interested in getting the problem fixed.”

Run-away buses have been known to produce plenty of angst in big-time dramas. But not here, says Rep. Mia Butler Garrick.

“It’s not about throwing anybody under the bus,” she said. “I’ve heard that said too many times.”

Ms. Garrick said this is about accountability. “I have not seen any evidence of us holding you accountable, of you holding yourself accountable,” she said to Ms. McBride.

Ultimately, Rep. Garrick lamented that she didn’t know what the delegation could do to restore public confidence.

Sen. Lourie also acknowledged that public trust and confidence had been “compromised.”

But amid the intrigue, there was far too little talk about how to mend the breach.

The show fell far short of addressing the serious blow delivered to the public’s trust and confidence in the election process. While I’m sure officials understand that the damage that was done is serious, I’m not convinced they know how to fix it.

I know elections officials are promising a full report and recommendations; I’m all for getting the facts. But here’s a fact we already have: Public trust is delicate and easily bruised but not so easily restored. Time doesn’t heal it. Action, openness and honesty do.

There are many reasonable people who are understandably angry and, now, skeptical about whether the people in this office can perform. That skepticism will grow until some real action is taken.

Yes, lawmakers talked about reducing the size of precincts — and they should. Yes, they talked about pushing for early voting; that also should happen. Yes, there was talk about getting new voting machines. But, as Rep. Ballentine pointed out, we could have been voting on state-of-the-art machines and it wouldn’t have mattered; we still would have had this mess.

Sen. John Courson introduced the notion of giving Richland County control over elections; the only better option would be to have the state oversee elections. But even that wouldn’t necessarily have prevented this fiasco.

I’m confident that Ms. McBride and Ms. Crum are right when they say that no votes were lost and that we got an accurate picture of what voters wanted. I’d like to think this would never happen again, regardless who is running the elections.

But I’m also confident that the delegation, the county Election Commission and Ms. McBride have fallen far short thus far of doing enough to restore the public’s trust in this office’s ability to carry out elections. They’ve got to do more. What they’ve proposed so far isn’t dramatic enough.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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