Politics & Government

In heated exchange, Sen. Harpootlian labels Richland elections official incompetent

In an hour-long meeting highlighting Richland County’s elections dysfunction, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian launched into a heated back-and-forth with an elections board member over her failure to complete the training required by law for the appointed job.

The sharp-tongued freshman senator’s exchange with Richland County elections board member Shirley Mack is just the latest turbulence at the elections commission.

Last month, the board learned it failed to count more than 1,000 votes in November’s election — an embarrassing misstep that, nonetheless, did not affect the result of any races.

In response, Richland County elections director Rokey Suleman resigned.

Wednesday, during a meeting filled with terse exchanges and a shouting match between Mack and a member of the public, Harpootlian called out Mack for failing to take three of the six elections courses she was required to complete within 18 months of her appointment.

Mack has received a letter from Gov. Henry McMaster’s office asking her to explain why she didn’t take the courses or face removal from the commission.

During a minutes-long exchange, Harpootlian said Mack’s conduct during the meeting — including interrupting fellow board members and elections staff, and being openly hostile toward board chairwoman Jane Emerson — were signs of incompetence.

“It further indicates to me you’re not suited to be on this commission,” said Harpootlian, who is visiting county boards that the Richland County legislative delegation appoints before new members are named later this spring. “I’ll be glad when you’re off.”

Mack said she had talked with the governor’s office and won’t be removed from office. She said she missed certain courses because she was in the hospital and others because the agency’s former director, Suleman, did not help her sign up.

Mack also accused Emerson, the board’s acting chairwoman, of overstepping her bounds in allowing the agency’s deputy director to fill in as interim director in Suleman’s place.

“I am going to tell the truth, and if you don’t want the truth, then you fire me,” Mack told Harpootlian, D-Richland.

“I came here to find out why the election process in Richland County is so screwed up, and I got the answer,” Harpootlian replied.

Mack was appointed in 2017 by Richland County lawmakers to fill a vacant seat on the elections board. She has made news before. In April 2018, Emerson called security on her after a verbal dispute escalated into Mack calling Emerson “stupid” and demanding she turn over a set of documents.

“It’s a lot more dysfunctional than I ever imagined,” state Rep. Seth Rose, D-Richland, said of Wednesday’s elections board meeting. “We do have some good board members, and we have some other board members who are disruptive.”

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.