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Bernstein, other Columbia-area lawmakers calling for delegation meeting about elections

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Bernstein Finlay McElveen Rutherford

Richland County state lawmakers, from left, Kirkman Finlay, Beth Bernstein, Thomas McElveen and Todd Rutherford talk at a Nov. 2018 meeting.

A number of Columbia area lawmakers have signed a letter asking the leader of Richland County's legislative delegation to call a meeting with the county's election commission, which has had trouble hiring a new elections director and is facing a poll worker shortage in the upcoming June 9 primaries.

Democratic state Rep. Beth Bernstein penned the letter Monday to longtime state Rep. Jimmy Bales, who chairs Richland's legislative delegation. In the letter, Bernstein asserts that she asked Bales in April to arrange a meeting between the delegation and the Richland County Election Commission board. Such a meeting was not scheduled. 

Now Bernstein is rekindling her call for a meeting — preferably this week — and several other lawmakers have signed on to her letter. Those include state Reps. Kirkman Finlay, Kambrell Garvin, Seth Rose, Todd Rutherford, Ivory Thigpen, Wendy Brawley and Nathan Ballentine; and state Sens. Mia McLeod, Dick Harpootlian and Thomas McElveen.

"The primary is in three weeks, and we have no time to waste," Bernstein wrote in the letter. "This is an important election, and the track record of elections in our county has not been too favorable in years past. Most recently, in the February presidential primary, almost 100 absentee ballots were misplaced. Moreover, we have had seven election directors in seven years."

Bernstein also lamented the recent failed negotiations between the county elections board and a potential new elections director.

In March, the election commission voted to hire Tammy Smith, of Wilson County, Tennessee, to be the county's elections director. However, talks between the two sides dragged on for two months, and they could not come together on a salary figure. Ultimately, Smith declined the job, and noted in her declination letter that the elections board basically failed to negotiate with her.

Following Smith declining the job, election commission Vice Chairman Craig Plank resigned his position in frustration, also saying that the county had failed to negotiate with Smith.

"This is unacceptable especially since we are now in the midst of a presidential election year without an elections director and we are one of the largest counties in the state," Bernstein wrote in her letter to Bales.

Bernstein added that it was her understanding that Smith and the county elections board were "less than 2 percent" apart in terms of a salary figure.

Terry Graham continues to work as the county's interim elections director. Election Commission Chairman Charles Austin has reopened the search for a permanent director, and says he wants a new person in place by July 1.

Bernstein wrote that, if Bales does not soon convene a meeting, she and other legislators will convene their own meeting on May 26 to talk about elections.

As of the afternoon of May 19, no public notice had been issued about a Richland County Legislative Delegation meeting.

Elections have typically been an adventure in Richland County. The November 2012 election was particularly memorable, with many complaining of machine shortages and hours-long waits at the polls on a day when, among other things, a contentious, $1 billion transportation penny tax referendum was on the ballot.

Then there was the 2018 elections debacle. In that instance, more than 1,000 ballots were not counted in the November election. While the blunder didn’t affect the outcome of any races, 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.

There was another gaffe during this year’s Feb. 29 Democratic presidential preference primary. In that instance, 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.

Now Richland County — like other counties in the state — is looking at a dearth of poll workers for the June 9 primary, as fear around the novel coronavirus continues to swirl. As reported by Jamie Lovegrove at The Post and Courier, Graham says the county would typically need 900-1,000 poll workers for such a primary, but currently only has about 400 people committed to work the primary. County staffers told commissioners at a May 14 elections board meeting that they continue to look for workers.

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