The board governing how Charleston County oversees its elections and voter registration could be challenged in court and could cast a cloud over this year's elections if state lawmakers don't act soon.
Ditto with Berkeley, Dorchester and 36 of South Carolina's other 46 counties.
Addressing this problem - created by the way lawmakers consolidated these election and voter registration boards - is just one election change lawmakers are batting about as they try to ensure this year's voting runs smoothly.
Another big proposed change would give the State Election Commission greater authority to oversee county election boards, particularly when problems arise.
Last year, lawmakers passed a bill to reform the way candidates filed for office - a direct response to a state Supreme Court ruling that knocked more than 200 state and local candidates off the ballot in the 2012 election cycle.
This year, lawmakers are reacting to the 2012 general election, particularly in Richland County, where some voters had to wait in line for up to five hours to vote.
Lynn Teague, who has followed election reform for the S.C. League of Women Voters, cast her ballot in Richland County two years ago and considered herself lucky: Her wait was just under three hours. She was in line next to Elizabeth Courson, wife of Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, one of the state's most powerful figures.
The county's problems persisted last year, when it missed more than 1,100 absentee ballots in municipal races.
"This (elections) board in Richland has done such a remarkably, appallingly bad job," Teague said. "They're not doing their jobs properly at all, but it has brought to a head what is a wider problem."
Richland is not the only problem spot. In the 1990s, Charleston County grappled with reporting election results promptly, and last fall, a host of problems caused the town of Elloree to scrap its 2013 mayoral election and hold a new one this year.
State Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said he has received support from Republicans and Democrats across the state in his effort to give the state power to straighten out counties that have election problems.
"It really doesn't change the way your county is operating now," he said. "All it does is provide important oversight when and if a county commission fails to follow the law or policy or fails to turn around the certified count in a timely way."
But some, including Charleston election watchdog Frank Heindel, said the pending legislation goes too far.
"Richland County's perennial dysfunction is no reason for Charleston County to give up local control of our election process," he said. "Turning over more control to Columbia and the State Election Commission is a huge step in the wrong direction. Less than two years ago, the folks in Columbia allowed my Social Security number to be hacked and have never found the guilty party. If they can't safeguard our tax data, why trust them with our electronic ballots?"
Teague said she understands some counties may wonder why they should have to change because of problems mainly in Richland.
"And the answer is that citizens across South Carolina need to know there's a consistent process for ensuring the integrity of their vote," she said.
Some bills would give the commission a role in hiring county election directors, audit county boards to ensure compliance and advise on personnel decisions, such as hiring, firing and pay raises. The details are expected to be debated as the session winds down.
Meanwhile, the State Election Commission is neutral on bills that would increase its authority, spokesman Chris Whitmire said.
"We're not out there saying the State Election Commission wants control of the county election commissions, but if the General Assembly were to decide to do that, then we of course would carry that out," he said.
However, the commission has endorsed other legislation that would combine the election and voter registration boards in all 46 counties. Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties had their boards combined years ago, but a circuit judge recently ruled that the bill combining Richland's boards was illegal local legislation.
That ruling puts other county boards in question, Whitmire said.
In 1972, every county had separate election and voter registration boards, but since then, 39 have consolidated them. Five others - Spartanburg, Greenville, Greenwood, Horry and Dillon - have separate boards but only one director and one office. Only Cherokee and Williamsburg counties still maintain totally separate boards.
"It just makes sense in today's election environment that you have one board with one director who is responsible for the whole election process in the county," Whitmire said, "that you have a left hand and a right hand, with one brain operating both."
However, Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg, has put a minority report on a Senate bill to combine the boards - a step that could block the bill. Martin did not return a message left Tuesday.
Smith said if no legislation passes along these lines, Richland will have to revert to separate election and voter registration boards for this year's elections.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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