COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster stepped in Thursday and punted all four members of the Richland County Elections Board after 1,040 votes were not counted in the fall, the county's fourth major elections blunder in eight years.
State law says the governor can remove county elections board members for "incapacity, misconduct or neglect of duty."
"South Carolinians’ confidence in the lawful and professional oversight of elections must never be jeopardized,” McMaster said after issuing an executive order.
“The repeated actions and behavior of these officials are wholly unacceptable and cannot be tolerated," his message continued. "To regain and maintain Richland County voters' confidence at the ballot box, the entire board must be replaced with new leadership."
The Richland County election director, Rokey Suleman, resigned over the weekend after being told he had lost the confidence of the board since news broke last month about the missing votes. He was the county’s fourth election director since 2011.
State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, and a voting precinct director loudly argued with board member Shirley Mack, while Mack ripped into interim board Chairwoman Jane Emerson about the director’s resignation. McMaster cited the meeting in his order, saying members "exhibited misconduct."
Harpootlian said he did not object to McMaster ousting the board.
"What I saw from them was that they were not doing their job," Harpootlian said.
Harpootlian said he wants new board members who will make sure elections are run smoothly "and not be worried who got hired for certain jobs."
The Richland County delegation sends appointments to local boards and commissions to the governor for final approval.
Emerson, along with board members Peter Kennedy and Sylvia Holley, were first appointed in 2014 as part of a neat turnover of the board in the wake of another mishap. Mack was appointed in 2017, but she received a warning letter from McMaster last week for not taking required certification courses.
Emerson, Kennedy and Mack had terms scheduled to end in September 2020. Holley’s term had expired in 2016, but she remained on the board, which has one vacancy.
They could, however, be re-nominated by the Richland County delegation.
Harpootlian said he would like to see Emerson, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, return, while state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Chapin, said he would like to see Kennedy, who filled a seat saved for a Republican, come back.
Emerson called the board's firing "short-sighted" because four of the five senior staff members joined the office in the past year as the state's second-largest county faces Columbia city elections this fall and the 2020 presidential primaries next February.
"Good luck is all I have to say," she said.
Ballentine said he is not surprised McMaster decided to fire all board members.
"This all shows the importance of who we place on these boards and commissions," Ballentine said. "We have not filled these posts with the most qualified people."
Until a debacle involving the delegation-appointed county Recreation Commission in 2016, the legislative delegation voted on an entire slate of board nominees that came from a special application review committee and could not make changes, Ballentine said.
The 17-member delegation also met just once a year, unlike the Lexington County lawmakers who gather about six times a year, said Ballentine, whose district includes both counties.
"There is no oversight (in Richland)," he said. "We had no idea what these people were doing after they were appointed."
Now individual Richland County delegation members have more say on appointments, and the county lawmakers plan to meet more often, Ballentine said.
In November, 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, said Suleman, who came to Columbia in 2017.
The missing votes did not change the outcomes of any races, county officials have said. The State Election Commission, which notified the county about the missing votes, audited and approved the election results this week. But the missing votes will not be included into tallies certified in November.
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. Four years later, the county needed state help after missing a primary election recount deadline.