McMaster fires entire Richland Co. election board after lost votes, chaotic meeting

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster on Thursday fired the entire Richland County elections board, three months after the agency failed to count more than 1,000 votes in the 2018 election and a day after a chaotic board meeting that highlighted the agency’s dysfunction.

“South Carolinians’ confidence in the lawful and professional oversight of elections must never be jeopardized,” McMaster said in a news release. “The repeated actions and behavior of these officials are wholly unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. To regain and maintain Richland County voters’ confidence at the ballot box, the entire board must be replaced with new leadership.”

Acting board chairwoman Jane Emerson and board members Peter Kennedy, Sylvia Holley and Shirley Mack were ousted immediately by the governor’s order. One seat already was open after former chairwoman Adell Adams’ term expired last fall. Holley’s term also had expired — in 2016 — but she remained on the board because the Richland County legislative delegation, which names members to the board, never picked a replacement.

McMaster’s decision surprised Richland County lawmakers — some who are excited to pick new members to turn the elections agency around, and others who are concerned the agency charged with registering voters now has a leadership void.

The firing also highlights the dysfunction that can arise among the state’s litany of under-the-radar county commissions. These boards’ members are picked by legislators but can be removed only by the governor.

S.C. governors seldom have exercised that authority. But most recently, former Gov. Nikki Haley in 2016 ousted six of the seven members of the Richland County Recreation Commission after the board ignored allegations the director sexually harassed and abused employees.

‘Happy to be out of there’

The governor’s announcement comes two weeks after news the county elections agency failed to count more than 1,000 votes in the 2018 general election, or about 1 percent of the votes cast. The embarrassing misstep did not affect the result of any races, but it led elections director Rokey Suleman to resign over the weekend.

Then, on Wednesday, the board’s monthly meeting gave way to a chaotic series of terse exchanges and shouting matches.

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, called out board member Shirley Mack for failing to take half of the elections training courses she was legally required to complete within 18 months of her appointment in 2017. And voting precinct director Rebecca Woodford shouted from a podium that she questioned “the intellectual integrity of the board itself.”

Mack raised her voice several times to defend herself and cast blame on chairwoman Emerson and former director Suleman.

“Nobody trusts the Richland County election process,” Harpootlian told her. “They don’t trust it. I don’t trust it. And I came over here to find out who is part of the solution and who is part of the problem. You’re part of the problem.”

Thursday, Emerson expressed relief — and little surprise — at the governor’s decision.

“I’m happy to be out of there,” she said. “I just hope they can put some people on there that are going to be upstanding, ‘let’s try to all get along and work together’ kind of people.”

Mack was also was happy about McMaster unraveling the board, calling it a chance at “a fresh start.”

“I think he made an excellent decision,” she said, “the best decision ever made. He’s my kind of governor. ... It was a lopsided board.”

Kennedy, another board member, said his main concern is for the elections staff that remains.

“I hate to see it happen, but if it’s what (McMaster) feels is the right thing to be done, that’s what needs to be done,” he said.

Efforts to reach Holley on Thursday afternoon were unsuccessful.

‘An unhealthy process’

Some Richland County lawmakers said they were surprised to hear the news. Some who had been critical of the board were relieved. Others were concerned by the leadership void at an agency with no board and an interim director.

“Now we have no executive director,” said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland. “We have no board, and we’re in the midst of a presidential election cycle, and this is an office that not only conducts elections, but it’s also in charge of voter registration, and that is really about to crank up. I don’t know who is running it.”

Jackson and state Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, said they wished McMaster had called Richland County lawmakers first to see if the agency’s problems could have been handled another way.

Scott said the Richland County delegation now must rush to find qualified candidates and fill five board spots at once.

“It’s an unhealthy process,” Scott said.

Other Richland County lawmakers praised the governor’s decision, saying it gives them an opportunity to appoint an entirely new board that can turn the agency around.

Harpootlian said Thursday he thinks Emerson did a good job but that the board’s removal “will allow the delegation a clean slate.”

“The delegation bears part of the blame for this, and hopefully this will give us a chance to atone for past mistakes,’ he said.

State Rep. Seth Rose, D-Richland, who also attended Wednesday’s meeting, said Richland County residents shouldn’t have to wonder if their votes will be counted.

“Some members did their best to assist, but I’m hopeful that choosing an entirely new elections board will help ensure that all votes in Richland County are counted accurately and we have no more issues with a board that has had way too many problems this decade,” Rose said.

In Suleman’s absence, deputy director Thad Hall is leading the office. The now-vacant elections board is charged with hiring a new director and can’t do that until it is filled.

Even McMaster’s move Thursday won’t address the underlying issue of Richland County’s aging voting machines, said John Crangle, a longtime government watchdog who was at the contentious Wednesday meeting.

“Dick (Harpootlian) was obviously talking about Mack being the problem. She’s obviously a cantankerous, difficult person, but she’s not the problem. The voting machines are,” Crangle said. “Just firing the board is not going to solve the problem.”

While voting machine failures contributed to the uncounted vote, elections officials did not follow vote-counting protocols after the voting machines went down, according to Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the state elections commission. Had they followed protocol, the votes would have been counted, Whitmire said.

The change in board leadership will not affect any ongoing elections, Whitmire said.

The total leadership upheaval continues years of dysfunction in the Richland County elections process.

Richland County elections have been under tight scrutiny ever since a disastrous 2012 presidential election when many voters waited hours in lines. In the years since, it has struggled with turnovers in leadership, legal and financial challenges and occasional tension with Richland County Council, which funds the agency.

Staff writers Travis Bland and Lucas Daprile contributed to this story.

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Sarah Ellis has reported on Columbia and Richland County since 2014. She graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism.
Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.