IF YOU LIVE IN Richland County, you remember the lines: the excruciatingly long lines that snaked through elementary schools and churches and fire stations, that looped outside into the cold, where we stood for two, four, in some cases even seven hours, waiting to vote. That was four years ago, and even if you don’t live in Richland County, you probably remember, because it was the worst election debacle in modern S.C. history.
And it was entirely preventable. It was, we would quickly learn, the result of either gross incompetence or arrogance on the part of an inexperienced county elections director who disregarded advice from her predecessor.
The elections office actually left hundreds of voting machines sitting in a warehouse. It deployed fewer machines than it had in the previous presidential election — an insane move even if it didn’t violate state law, which it did. It reduced the number of poll workers, again, to a number below the state-mandated minimum. It failed to make sure the voting machines were in good working order, and then wasn’t prepared to fix or replace the ones that, predictably, didn’t operate. And then there was that mysterious part-time employee who allegedly made the decisions about how to deploy the voting machines. And the absentee votes that didn’t get counted for weeks.
The whole mess resulted not just in inconvenience but in disenfranchised voters, as people had to give up without voting, because they had to pick up children before the day care closed, or because their employers wouldn’t let them show up for work several hours late or take a four-hour lunch. Also giving up: elderly voters who couldn’t take the physical strain of waiting all those hours.
Lilian McBride had done fine running the presidential primaries, and the state primaries. But then, those contests attract only a small fraction of the voters who turn out for a presidential election, which tests the election apparatus like nothing else.
And now here we are four years later, two days away from the first real post-2012 test. We have a new elections board, and a new director — who has managed to pull off the lower-turnout elections without problems. Which unfortunately tells us nothing about his ability to pull off the big one on Tuesday.
Elections Director Samuel Selph is not the first person who would come to mind if you were looking to inspire confidence in the election process. He was a member of the secretive board that hired him in 2014 to run the agency, after it suddenly and without explanation fired its first post-McBride director. This was the same board that stood by Ms. McBride after the disaster of 2012, until it finally gave her a golden parachute. Mr. Selph’s only experience with elections was voting, serving as a poll worker … and serving on the board that hired him.
Mr. Selph was found in contempt of court in September because the board still hadn’t paid $38,000 in attorney’s fees from a lawsuit it lost in February 2015. Now, to be fair, he’s not the one who created the violation that led to that judgment; that was the state legislators from Richland County. But he is the person who did not ask the County Council until this summer to let him use the election office’s funds to pay that bill from a year and a half earlier.
Of course, any good manager probably can handle the job of election director — if he is willing to take lots of advice from experts. And that is the one thing that gives me some confidence about what will happen on Tuesday. Under a new state law that was passed in response to the 2012 debacle, Mr. Selph is getting advice from experts, and he appears to have been heeding it.
The 2014 law gives the State Election Commission the power and duty to remove incompetent county election officials, who until then had been largely unaccountable. It also requires the state to check each county’s vote totals before certifying them and to do compliance audits of the counties’ performance. As a result, State Election Commission Director Marci Andino told me recently, the state has hired four of five “area representatives” whose sole job is to spot potential problems and offer training and assistance to the county offices.
“Once they get there and they form a relationship with the local officials, I think the counties that might be reluctant to say, ‘I don’t understand this process,’ they will ask the reps,” she said. The state officials will “see how the counties function as a whole, and then share best practices with the other counties. We feel like in time that is going to improve the quality of work that is done at the county level.”
Of course, this is still a new process, and Ms. Andino acknowledges that there’s no way to spot all potential problems. But, she said, “I think there’ll be indicators going in that somebody needs assistance.”
That’s far from a guarantee that potential problems will be spotted and prevented — but it’s exponentially more than we had four years ago.
Let’s just hope it’s enough.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.