Politics & Government

Richland elections director fired after agency failed to count 1,000 votes in midterms

Rokey Suleman’s rocky two-year tenure as Richland County’s elections and voter registration director is over.

The agency’s new board voted 5-0 Wednesday to terminate his service after a chaotic half-year in which the elections office failed to count more than 1,000 votes in the November 2018 midterms and the agency’s entire board was fired by the governor in February.

Board chairman Charles Austin told The State the move is necessary “in terms of overcoming what has become a negative perception and to rebuild the confidence of our citizens who participate in the voting and elections process.”

Suleman, who earned $93,000 a year in the job, would not comment on the board’s decision. “I wish the board well,” he said.

Thad Hall, the agency’s deputy director, was called into the board’s cramped, stuffy meeting room moments after Suleman’s termination.

Asked by the soft-spoken Austin to fill in as interim director while the board searches for a full-time replacement, Hall replied, “Sure, I will do that.”

The decision gives the new board a chance to start fresh with a new director, who will be the agency’s sixth in six years.

The elections agency has a reputation to rehabilitate. It still is best known for the seven-hour lines, lost ballots, and shortage of voting machines and poll workers that plagued the 2012 presidential and penny sales tax election.

The office’s failure to count about 1% of the 142,000 votes cast in the November 2018 election was another blow to public confidence, even though it did not affect the outcome of any races on the ballot.

Many Richland County voters likely thought Suleman was already out of the job, since former board chairwoman Jane Emerson told reporters in February that Suleman had resigned after the debacle.

But Suleman has quietly continued to work as the agency’s director. In an email to Richland County lawmakers that was obtained by The State, Suleman wrote that he never resigned — but had only agreed to leave if the board promised to pay for the rest of his contract, which expired April 30.

Gov. Henry McMaster fired the board on Feb. 14, before it voted on that payout. So Suleman stayed in the job.

Over the past few months, Suleman has not returned reporters’ phone calls about the situation, nor would he comment publicly when reached over the phone last week.

Asked if Suleman — a member of the high-IQ MENSA society who has worked on elections in Washington, D.C., and Afghanistan — was still capable of doing the job, Austin said he considers him a “gifted professional.”

“I appreciate the services he provided, especially in the time that we have come in as a new board,” Austin said. “But given our assessment of the circumstances in the current situation, we believe this would be a good time to redirect.”

The director’s office has been a revolving door since then-director Lillian McBride stepped down after the 2012 election fiasco.

Jasper Salmond filled in as a part-time director after McBride’s resignation. Howard Jackson was fired in February 2014 after what he described as a “power struggle” with the board over staff changes. And Samuel Selph retired from the job in March 2017 after a series of clashes with county council over his agency’s funding.

The next director will be picked by the new county elections board, whose five members were selected by Richland County lawmakers in March and have held three meetings since then.

The new board consists of Austin, the former Columbia police chief and city manager; University of South Carolina computer science and engineering professor Duncan Buell; Anjanette President; real-estate broker Yolanda Taylor; and Craig Plank, a State Farm real-estate agent.

Austin said the lawmakers who picked the board members had no input on the decision to fire Suleman. He said the board has had ample time since Suleman’s contract officially ended on April 30 to observe the agency and Suleman’s leadership before making a decision.

“We believe that it was a good time for the agency to move in a new direction, under new leadership,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that lawmakers named Craig Plank, and not Shelia Washington, to the Richland County elections and voter registration board.

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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.