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After disastrous primary, Richland County names new director for embattled elections office

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Richland primary 2020

Voters cast primary election ballots at Horrell Hill Elementary School in Hopkins on June 9. Photo by Adam Benson/Post and Courier

Richland County has a new director for its embattled elections and voter registration office.

The Richland County Election Commission announced during a June 19 special meeting that it has hired Alexandria Stephens, who has for the last several years been an elections coordinator in Jefferson County, Alabama, to head up the local office.

Jefferson County has a population of 658,466, and includes Birmingham.

The announcement of Stephens' hiring comes after the county's elections board has spent more than a year looking for a permanent director for the elections office. It fired its last director, Rokey Suleman, in May 2019, and its most recent previous attempt to hire an elections leader — making an offer to Tammy Smith, of Wilson County, Tennessee — fell apart in May after the two sides could not come to an agreement on a salary after two months of strained negotiations.

Richland County Election Commission Chairman Charles Austin tells Free Times Stephens was among the applicants for the director position earlier this year, and was a strong candidate at that point. When the county reopened the search after the agreement with Smith fell through, Stephens let the county know she was still interested.

"We went through the interview process and she was still a strong candidate," Austin says. "We are excited and we look forward to working with her."

Austin says Stephens will be paid $88,500 per year. He declined to say how that compared to what the county was offering Smith earlier this year. Suleman earned $93,000 per year.

Commissioners said at the June 19 meeting that Stephens' first official day in Richland will likely be in early July. Her last day on the job in Alabama is July 3. However, she plans to be in Columbia on June 22 to meet with staff and officials, just one day ahead of the June 23 primary runoffs in Richland.

The long-awaited announcement of a new director comes just more than a week after a disastrous day at the polls in South Carolina's capital county on June 9. That primary was marred by an extreme shortage of poll workers because of COVID-19 fears, numerous combined precincts, hours-long waits at polling places (the final votes were cast in the wee hours of June 10), and reports of people receiving incorrect ballots. 

The calamitous day at the polls — the latest in a string of election gaffes in Richland in the last decade — has spurred the South Carolina Election Commission to get involved in assisting with the June 23 runoffs. Four Richland County Council races have runoffs that day.

Meanwhile, it was discussed at the June 19 meeting that Richland County's current interim elections director, Terry Graham, has been out sick throughout this week in the run-up to the June 23 primary. When reached by Free Times, Graham — who has not been in attendance at either of this week's two virtual county election commission meetings — said he hoped to be back at work Monday or Tuesday. He says he has been communicating with with the elections office throughout this week, and noted state Election Commission officials have been steadily working with the county heading into the runoffs.

Graham tells Free Times he has been having sinus issues and back problems throughout the week. He also says he plans to take a COVID-19 test Friday, just as a precaution.

Austin adds that county elections directors from a number of other counties in the state have been assisting Richland as the runoffs approach, and says some of them also will be helping out on June 23.

Stephens has worked in the Jefferson County elections office for the past six years. 

"I have greatly appreciated my time [in Jefferson County]," Stephens said during the June 19 Richland commission meeting. "I have learned a lot. But what interested me about the position in Richland County is that it gives me the opportunity to take my leadership, my experience here, to another area. ... I look forward to working with everyone there. 

"Hopefully, we can dive right in. We've discussed some of the challenges that you all have had. I'm hoping I can come in and find a way to turn some of those things around."

Austin responded that some of the many challenges Richland County has had with elections through the years have been "self-inflicted."

"That's something we would expect our leader to address," Austin said. "We want to ensure that we are getting the maximum effort."

Democratic state Rep. Beth Bernstein — one of a number of legislators who have been expressing concern about the elections process in Richland, and calling for an expedient hire of a new director — attended the June 19 commission meeting and welcomed Stephens. But she also issued a warning to the incoming director.

"You've got a lot of challenges ahead you, for sure," Bernstein said.

Stephens has a bachelors in political science and a masters in public administration from Auburn University, according to information shared by Austin. She is currently pursuing a masters in human resource management with Troy University.

Elections have a gnarly recent history in Richland County.

In addition to the recent June 9 debacle, the November 2012 election was particularly troublesome, 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.

There also was the 2018 elections mess. 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-director 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.

Then there was the failed attempt to hire Smith earlier this year.

In March, the election commission voted to hire Smith 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.

Bernstein has said it is her understanding that Smith and the commission were only about 2 percent apart on a salary figure for Smith. 

Following Smith declining the job, county election commission Vice Chairman Craig Plank resigned his position in frustration, also saying that the county had failed to negotiate with Smith. The Richland County Legislative Delegation has yet to replace Plank on the board.

As for the numerous issues at the polls on June 9, Richland County Democratic Party Chairman Matt Kisner sent a letter to the county election commission, expressing dismay at a host of problems that occurred at the polls during the primary.

Kisner told the commissioners that the county and state should be serious about addressing the issues that occurred on June 9.

"We are demanding accountability," Kisner wrote. "The [county election commission] or the [state election commission] must conduct a full review of the problems that occurred on election day. The review should diagnose what went wrong and provide a plan for corrective action. This plan should identify accountable parties, project timelines, and stipulate consequences for failure to take corrective action.

"It should also identify any funding or resources required for corrective action. This internal review process must be taken seriously and expedited in light of the November election. The results of this review should be communicated to the public."

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