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Richland still looking for hundreds of poll workers for upcoming primary

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New voting machines

A South Carolina voting machine.

As the June 9 primaries rapidly approach, Richland County is still several hundred poll workers short of what it normally would have for an election.

Interim Richland County Elections Director Terry Graham tells Free Times the county currently has about 500 poll workers lined up for the primary, well short of the 900 that would typically work such an election. Like in many counties throughout the state, apprehension about the novel coronavirus pandemic has made it tougher for Richland to secure the workforce it usually has for an election.

While the county is still actively seeking folks to man the polls, Graham notes that it is very likely that some voting precincts will have to be combined for June 9. The plans for which polling locations would be closed are still under discussion. Graham says that voters whose polling places will be moved for election day will receive a card in the mail letting them know of the change. Also, there will be signage posted on election day at any closed precincts, directing voters to the appropriate combined polling location.

Richland has made some gains in securing help for the coming election. Roughly two weeks ago, the county had less than 400 workers committed for the primary. Now that’s been beefed up to near 500. Graham knows it will be tough to get to the 900 he’d like to have for June 9, but admits he’d be pleased if he could add a couple hundred more people.

He notes that the general plateauing of COVID-19 cases across the state, and the planned use of protective gear, could spur some that are hesitant about working to give it a go.

“Some people might feel more comfortable now, since the numbers are leveling off as far as COVID-19,” Graham says. “If that’s the case, we might not be in as bad of shape as it appears right now.”

Pay for poll workers for the coming primary ranges from $150 to $210, depending on the position. Those interested in working can call 803-576-2201 for information.

Elections in Richland County have long been a high-wire act.

Perhaps most infamous was the November 2012 election, when many complained of machine shortages and hours-long waits at the polls on a day when a controversial $1 billion transportation penny tax referendum was on the ballot.

In 2018, more than 1,000 ballots were not counted in the November election. The blunder didn’t affect the outcome of any races, but it shook Gov. Henry McMaster’s confidence in the county elections commission. Subsequently, he removed the entire board in February 2019. After a new board was installed, it formally removed then-elections director Rokey Suleman from his post in May 2019.

Most recently, there was a mixup during this year’s Feb. 29 Democratic presidential preference primary. In that one, 74 absentee ballots were miscounted. It was eventually determined that the missing ballots in question had been accidentally left in a locked storage room. They were ultimately added to the county’s tally and certified.

During a May 21 meeting of the Richland County Election Commission, Chairman Charles Austin and Vice Chairman Duncan Buell pressed Graham for assurances that protocols are in place for June 9 to prevent any missing ballots or counting issues.

Graham replied that county election officials will “make sure the chain of custody is secure” for all ballots and will “double check, triple check and quadruple check” to ensure everything is accounted for.

“So, as a part of the chain of custody, we will be clear on where the envelopes will be opened, we will be clear where everything will be stored, so there should not be an reason why 24, 48 or 72 hours later that we should have envelopes with ballots magically appearing?” Austin asked Graham at the May 21 meeting. The interim director replied, “That is correct.”

Austin, the former Columbia Police chief and former city manager, noted that members of the county Election Commission, including himself, would be present at the elections office on the night of the primary.

“I’m willing to commit as much time as necessary and appropriate to ensure that this primary is conducted with, hopefully, no problems, but with an absolute minimal level of issues,” Austin said.

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