There are signs in Richland County that the upcoming presidential election will not be the fiasco it was the last time. It might even go smoothly – fingers crossed.
In 2012, voters waited four or more hours in some polling places because the county office distributed too few machines despite having 17,000 more people on voter registration rolls. The office fell short of state law requirements on the number of poll workers. Two-thirds of the precincts exceeded the state guideline of 1,500 voters per precinct. Additional votes were discovered after election results had been certified by the state.
The good signs this go-round?
▪ The right number of voting machines will be at polling places on Nov. 8 – 1,022 of them. Only 50 machines will be held in reserve, unlike the 350 that never made it to the polls four years ago.
▪ Checklists that require signatures are being used to verify that each machine is ready. Most machines have been equipped with new batteries.
▪ A troubleshooter from the machine manufacturer, Elections Systems and Software, has been hired to be here on Election Day.
▪ Poll worker training has been more intense.
▪ The State Election Commission monitored two primary elections in June and found trouble spots. County election officials abided by the state’s suggested fixes.
Despite all that, the people in charge of key elements of the county’s Nov. 8 election mostly are members of the same team as four years ago – which left a stain on electoral politics.
Samuel Selph, however, has replaced the lightning rod of controversy, Lillian McBride, as director. Sharon Harris coordinates absentee voting this time. In 2012, Harris worked with those ballots but not in the leadership position. The rest of the leadership team, however, is intact.
Ultimately, voters who were fit to be tied four years ago will hand down the final verdict in nine days.
“I don’t want any (hourslong) lines,” said Selph, the county’s third elections and voter registration director since public pressure pushed McBride from the top post – but not from the elections office.
“I think we have done everything, basically, that will ensure a smooth election,” Selph said last week.
McBride, in her first presidential election as director, initially denied the election was a debacle. She would not answer questions from reporters or the public. Three weeks later, McBride made one written public statement in which she blamed the machine mix up on an mystery staffer she would not identify and deflected blame onto others.
The botched election prompted lawsuits, intervention by the state Supreme Court and anger that threw into question public confidence in fair elections in Richland County, especially the approval of a one penny increase in the sales tax to support roads, buses and and recreation.
Cheryl Goodwin, who oversees the key role of making sure voting machines are in working order and are delivered to polling places, agrees with Selph.
But she’s more uneasy than her boss. “I’m never confident. I’m petrified,” Goodwin said Friday as she managed shipments of the machines from a storage warehouse. “I’ve got no idea what God’s got in mind. We’ve done everything humanly possible we can do.”
Voting machines, checklists, federal oversight
Richland County has 1,146 voting machines, most of which date to 2004, according to the elections office.
The 143 polling places that will be open on Election Day will have 1,022 Ivotronic machines because the county has 255,659 active registered voters, Selph’s plan, approved by state elections officials, shows.
That number of machines is precisely the amount required by state law, which states there must be a machine for about every 250 voters.
The election plan, updated on Oct. 24, calls for about 50 machines to be set aside if the 30 technicians, called rovers, cannot fix problem machines at polling places.
Selph said he does not anticipate changing the plan in a substantial way by Nov. 8.
During the summer, each machine was checked to be sure it is ready, Goodwin said.
Unlike in 2012, Goodwin said her inspection team must use a written form and check whether each machine meets 22 standards. Each inspector must initial by each standard and indicate with a check mark whether the machine passes or fails each standard. Further, the inspector signs and dates the checklist.
Goodwin said there was no such checklist or verification by signature in the previous presidential election.
“Everybody that touches a voting machine is accountable for it,” she said of this election.
The computer innards of each machine were calibrated twice in the months since primaries and runoffs ended and will be calibrated a third time once the machines arrive at precincts, she said. Internal batteries also have been tested, and almost 1,000 have been replaced since last year.
Should machines fail anyway, each precinct will have paper ballots available as they were four years ago. “Why didn’t we use paper in 2012?” Goodwin asked. “We had boxes and boxes.”
Rusty DePass, one of the most outspoken critics of the county’s previous presidential election, is a poll worker turned poll manager this year.
He said the 2012 mess drove the veteran poll manager at his precinct, Ward 25, into retirement.
This time, training for poll workers has been more “intense,” DePass said. “You get down to specifics. They make sure that everybody is following the training,” he said of county election officials, who have held or are scheduled to hold 23 sessions for poll workers and machine technicians.
He said he has confidence in Selph, but remains remains skeptical of the influence of the five-member election board that oversees the office, McBride herself and her political backers.
“I certainly don’t see any glaring (red) flags about him,” DePass said of Selph. “I hope Sam is big enough to make that (a proper election) happen. I have no reason to believe we won’t have a smooth election.”
Selph said McBride, despite her title as deputy director, does not have a supervisory role over any division of the Elections & Voter Registration office.
“She runs, basically, aspects of procurement matters, budget matters, timekeeping and personnel,” he said of his predecessor. “She’s in charge of none of the divisions.”
When a reporter called McBride on Friday for her response, she asked who described her role that way. Then she answered as she has repeatedly since the fiasco. “I don’t have any comment.”
McBride’s name and the botched election still provoke strong reactions from voters.
“I believe, ultimately, that it’s a very corrupt enterprise,” DePass, who filed one of the lawsuits that challenged the penny sales tax referendum results, said of the 2012 election.
DePass recalled with disdain McBride reading a prepared statement at a legislative delegation meeting three weeks after the debacle where delegation chairman, Sen. Darrell Jackson, guided her through her only public pronouncements.
“I can tell you who was at fault,” DePass said. “That person was Lillian McBride. That doesn’t take an FBI investigation. She should have been gone,” he said of calls for McBride’s termination that went unheeded by the delegation or the board, whose members are appointed by the legislators.
The State Election Commission has taken a more active role in Richland County’s upcoming election.
Using new authority the Legislature granted in 2014, state officials monitored three Richland County primary and local elections in June and July because of vote-counting problems that delayed certification of outcomes.
For the first time since the new law, the state sent monitors to the county election office to observe election processes and suggest improvements, said Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the state agency.
The monitors made almost two dozen recommendations. Selph said his office adopted all of them.
Overall, the suggestions called for verification of machine operations and vote-counting sooner on election night as ways to double-check and speed voting results.
Checklists are a big part of the recommendations, which the State Election Commission provided to The State newspaper upon request.
In addition, Goodwin will have a station at election headquarters where she will work to catch and resolve questioned vote tallies or machine problems. That should help avoid bottlenecks from four years ago, when lines of poll managers with their vote tallies snaked through headquarters.
People allowed into a room where votes are counted just before the tallies are sent to the state is to be more strictly enforced, Goodwin, Selph and Whitmire said.
“While we can’t make assurances that any county election office won’t have problems on Election Day,” Whitmire said, “we expect Richland County and the 45 other county election offices to conduct a good, quality election.
“If Richland or any other county has difficulties, we’ll be ready to provide any assistance we can,” the state elections spokesman said.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.
Then and now
The slate of candidates and the penny sales tax referendum on the ballot in Richland County during the 2012 presidential election turned into an Election Day fiasco that still tarnishes confidence in voting. Here is an overview of the problems and what’s being done to have a smooth 2016 election.
Too few voting machines
THEN: The county elections office held back about 350 voting machines – even though 17,000 more people registered to vote in the 2012 election. The result? Lines so long that some voters waited four or more hours to cast their ballots. An unknown number left without voting. Three lawsuits challenged the outcome or the process.
NOW: The county is reserving 50 voting machines as back ups should any of the 1,022 devices in 143 precincts need to be replaced or be supplemented if turnout is heavy. The placement of machines in some precincts was adjusted by the county elections office in consultation with the State Election Commission.
Too few poll workers
THEN: The number of poll workers was 575 fewer than the minimum state election law requires.
NOW: There will be 1,022 poll workers at the precincts and precinct-by-precinct staffing has been reviewed by state election officials.
Who is supervising the election?
THEN: Lillian McBride, director of elections and voter registration in 2012, was widely blamed for the botched election.
NOW: Though McBride has the title of deputy director, she has no direct control of key aspects of running the election, said Samuel Selph, the third director of the office since the 2012 fiasco. “She runs, basically, the aspects of procurement matters, budget matters, timekeeping and personnel,” Selph said of his controversial predecessor.
However, most of the people directly responsible for other aspects of running the election are the same ones who performed those tasks in 2012.
Preparing voting machines and distributing them to polling places is the responsibility of Cheryl Goodwin. But this time a series of accountability measures have been added, including check-off lists signed by people responsible for each device.
The person responsible for coordinating the precincts is Becky Brown, a veteran of the office.
The person overseeing absentee voting is Sharon Harris. She dealt with absentee voting in 2012 when some ballots were misplaced. But Harris did not have a supervisory role at that time, Selph said.
The person responsbile for voter registration is Michelle Epps, another office veteran.
THEN: Nearly two-thirds of the county’s then-124 precincts were in violation of a six-decades-old state guideline that sets precinct sizes at 1,500 registered voters. One precinct in 2012, Parkway 1, had 4,029 registered voters or almost three times the legal limit. Many growing counties in South Carolina exceed the 1,500-voter guideline, state elections officials said.
NOW: Richland County added 25 precincts in 2014, increasing the total to 143 polling places. Still, 43 precincts still have 2,000 or more active registered voters, according to Selph’s office. The largest precinct, Longcreek, has 4,148 active voters.
Slowest of the slow in 2012
These are the 10 precincts where voting ran the latest, in descending order. The calculations were done by University of South Carolina mathematics and computer science professor Duncan Buell.
▪ Keels, where 35.8 percent of votes were cast after 7 p.m.
▪ Sandlapper, 33 percent late
▪ Friarsgate 1, 32.7 percent
▪ Pontiac, 31.8 percent
▪ Gadsden, 31.8 percent
▪ Dutch Fork 2, 31.7 percent
▪ Spring Valley West, 30 percent
▪ Parkway 1, 29.6 percent
▪ Ridge View, 29 percent
▪ Rice Creek, 28 percent
Despite adding 25 precincts since 2012, Richland County still has 43 that exceed the state guideline of one precinct per 1,500 voters. Oversized precincts are common in counties with growing populations. Here are Richland County’s 10 largest precincts:
▪ Longcreek, which is at Blythewood Middle School, 4,148 active registered voters
▪ Fairlawn, at Keenan High School, 3,009
▪ Kingswood, at Columbia High School, 2,992
▪ North Springs 2, at North Springs Elementary School, 2,967
▪ Wildewood, at St. John Neumann Church, 2,947
▪ Valley State Park, at Killian Elementary School, 2,917
▪ Riverwalk, at Episcopal/St. Simon/St. Jude church, 2,891
▪ Spring Valley West, at the Jewish Community Center, 2,887
▪ Ridge View 2, at Rice Creek Elementary, 2,824
▪ Briarwood, at E.L. Wright Middle School, 2,791
Where do I vote?
Learn where you vote by entering your address at scvotes.org. If you did not register before Oct. 8, you cannot vote Nov. 8.
Trouble at the polls?
As with most elections, the federal prosecutor’s office and the FBI will be on call for election fraud or voting rights abuses. Callers may contact the U.S. Attorney’s office at (803) 929-3000 or the FBI at (803) 551-4200.