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After years of tumult, Richland elections win praise from state lawmakers, party leaders

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Richland County elections chief Alexandria Stephens talks to reporters on Nov. 4, 2020 at the department's Hampton Street headquarters. Adam Benson/Staff 

COLUMBIA — Newly installed Richland County elections czar Alexandria Stephens won praise this week from state lawmakers for her handling of an unprecedented voting process — a departure from the strife and criticism that has flowed following several recent capital region outcomes.

“I honestly didn’t hear many complaints at all, and we all know that Richland County was one of the counties that everyone was going to be looking at,” state Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia, said during a Wednesday conference call with the county’s voter registration and elections board. “I think it was a big win for us.”

By the time polls opened on Nov. 3, Lexington and Richland counties had seen more than 198,000 ballots returned during an extended early voting window prompted by the coronavirus pandemic — a 133 percent increase from the number of people who voted absentee in the 2016 general election in the capital region.

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, a strong critic of the county’s previous elections board leadership, said he was pleased at the efficiency of this year’s voting.

State Rep. Annie McDaniel, a Winnsboro Democrat whose District 41 includes parts of Richland County, said Stephens and her team did well.

“Just seeing how Richland County elections commission has grown, it's just awesome,” she said.

Stephens was hired on June 19, 10 days after a disastrous primary that included waits of up to seven hours at the polls, multiple combined precincts due to an extreme shortage of workers and reports of people getting incorrect ballots.

The problems spurred the state Election Commission to intervene with June 23 runoffs for four County Council seats.

That was the fourth mishap in county elections over eight years. Previous blunders in the state’s second-largest county have included more missing votes, failure to roll out enough machines and trouble with a recount.

“I have great respect for what Director Stephens has done,” county elections board member Duncan Buell said.

More than 1.3 million South Carolinians voted absentee ahead of Election Day, with 438,000 of those returned by mail. Four years ago, 503,000 people total voted absentee, either by mail or in-person.

Overall, 2.5 million people voted either early or on Election Day itself — a 72 percent total that marks the second highest rate in 25 years.

Voters submitted 300,000 more mail-in ballots than in 2016, leaving normally packed church halls, school gymnasiums and other polling sites in solitude for long spells on Election Day this year.

Statewide, more than 20,000 people volunteered to work the polls while managing a new $53 million voting system that rolled out across South Carolina in February and created paper ballots for the first time.

Stephens was hired away from Jefferson County, Alabama — which has a population of 648,466 and includes the city of Birmingham. By comparison, Richland County’s population is roughly 416,000.

“Even though working through a pandemic caused a lot of challenges, I think it is allowing us to prepare better for future elections,” Stephens said. Officials also credited county elections officials for responding quickly to Election Day problems, including a brief power outage at Rosewood and Shandon precincts in downtown Columbia. 

Eaddy Willard, chairman of Richland County’s GOP, said Stephens’ department worked closely with both political parties to ensure transparency and fairness within precincts.

“I’ve heard many good things about this election,” she said.

The county opened six satellite sites for early in-person voting, which Stephens said contributed to brisk lines on Election Day itself.

“Although some people had to wait a couple of hours at the satellite locations, once we had been doing that for so long we were able to get the lines down,” Stephens said. “It also helped to eliminate the lines on Election Day.”

There were some places for improvement, however.

Stephens said officials likely will begin poll worker recruitment six to eight weeks ahead of future elections rather than four, and continue to rely on temporary staffing agencies so workers will commit to the job.

“This was an excellent example of public-private collaboration and how we were able to come together for a common cause, and that was to ensure that Richland County experienced a fair and impartial elections process” elections board chairman Charles Austin Jr. said.

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

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