Voting machine (copy) (copy)

South Carolina voting machines. File 

COLUMBIA — The Richland County Elections Board's first meeting since learning about 1,040 uncounted votes that led to the resignation of its director was 45 minutes of chaos.

The meeting Wednesday featured a state senator laying into county elections leaders, an Elections Board member ripping into the board chairwoman and a voting precinct director getting into screaming match with a board member. 

"Nobody trusts the Richland County elective process. They don't trust it. I don't trust it," an exasperated state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, told the board in Columbia.

He holds the four-member board accountable for 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.  

Harpootlian singled out Election Board member Shirley Mack for failing to take the training and certification courses that every county election official is required to complete. 

"This is a volunteer job. I understand that. But there are certain responsibilities. And I'm not sure all of you are taking those responsibilities seriously," Harpootlian said.

Mack explained she had scheduling conflicts and health emergencies that stopped her from completing the training. 

But Harpootlian didn't want to hear it. He told Mack that she was likely to lose her position on the county board, which is elected by the 17 state lawmakers who represent Richland County in the Statehouse.

Gov. Henry McMaster, Harpootlian pointed out, already sent Mack a letter notifying her that she was violating state law by not finishing her training. 

"Then you'll be removed," Harpootlian said. 

"Well, if that's what y'all feel like you have to do," Mack shot back. 

Mack wanted to talk about Rokey Suleman, the county's elections director who resigned Saturday because of the uncounted ballots that were first reported by The Post and Courier.  

She loudly questioned interim Elections Board chairwoman Jane Emerson about why Suleman was hired in the first place in 2017 and demanded to know why she wasn't notified of his resignation sooner.

"You said we accepted his resignation, but I didn't accept his resignation," Mack said.

"I don't know why there would be a vote on a resignation," Emerson responded.

"You don't have that authority," Mack added.

Emerson and Mack got into a shouting match almost a year ago over access to an employee complaint box, The State reported.  

Mack continually became a target of criticism. One county election staffer stood up during the meeting to question Mack's role on the board. 

"I'm beginning to question the intellectual integrity of the board itself," said Rebecca Woodford, who has directed a county precinct.

The pair began soon to scream over each other before they were told to stop by Emerson. 

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Between shouting matches, the county's acting elections director, Thad Hall, told the board members that none of the local or state races in Richland County last year would be invalidated by the missing votes most of which came from absentee in-person balloting.

The State Election Commission, he said, officially audited and approved the election results this week. But the missing votes will not be included into tallies certified in November. 

"What we clearly need was better process and procedures," Hall told the board.

The meeting was supposed to focus on the more than 1,040 ballots that were left on computerized voting machines and not tallied as part of the results on election night in November.

Suleman submitted a report to the board and state officials two weeks ago detailing how the county missed votes after being alerted by the state Elections Commission.

Richland County missed 832 in-person absentee votes from two voting machines that malfunctioned and the data was not recovered by a technician for the voting machine maker. Another 208 votes from two machines at two precincts that were closed incorrectly never got counted because of a miscommunication, Suleman said.

The missing ballots were another lapse in a line of problems during Richland County elections dating back to 2010 when the county certified incorrect election results after 1,100 votes were not counted.

In 2012, Richland County failed to deploy enough machines that led to excessively long lines and missed the state’s vote certification deadline. The county needed state help after missing a recount deadline in the 2016 primary, as well.

Suleman was the fourth county elections director since the problems began eight years ago. He resigned over the weekend after being told by Elections Board member Pete Kennedy that he lost support of the board.

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.