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SC election officials intervene in Richland County after long lines, ballot problems

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Richalnd primary voting

Even nearly 90 minutes after polls closed on June 9, more than 200 people were waiting to vote at North Springs Park off Clemson Road in Columbia. Adam Benson / The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — South Carolina election officials are "stepping up involvement" in the Richland County elections office after residents were forced to wait for hours to cast ballots in Tuesday's primary, with some not voting until after midnight.

In a statement Wednesday, state Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire bemoaned that in the state's second-most-populous county, which has been plagued by election mishaps for years, "yet again, voters were unnecessarily subjected to extreme wait times and confusion at polling places."

For the June 23 runoff elections, Whitmire said state officials would assist Richland County with poll manager training and allocation, voting equipment testing and deployment and Election Day operations.

The state commission also strongly encouraged the county to swiftly hire a permanent elections director, ending a vacancy that has been filled by temporary directors since May 2019. That's when Rokey Suleman was fired after the county failed to count more than 1,000 ballots in the 2018 midterm.

"The lack of leadership within the office has gone on for far too long and remains an obstacle to effective and efficient elections going forward," Whitmire said.

The commission voted to select a new director in March, but that candidate fell through in contract negotiations.

The election problems are nothing new in Richland County, home of the state's capital city of Columbia. In 2012, the county failed to deploy enough machines, leading to excessively long lines, and missed the state’s vote certification deadline. The county also needed state help after missing a recount deadline in the 2016 primary.

Gov. Henry McMaster removed the county's entire elections board in 2019 after the previous failures. But issues have persisted.

In the Democratic presidential primary earlier this year, Richland officials discovered they were short 74 in-person absentee ballots from the 7,195 total cast when they tried to submit results. The votes, however, showed up in recounts conducted by hand and by sending paper ballots through scanners.

In addition to extensive lines Tuesday, which were largely caused by precincts consolidating due to poll worker shortages, some voters reported not receiving absentee ballots they applied for or found some races were missing on their ballots. Some voters did not cast ballots until after midnight.

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Sara Barber, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said she applied for a ballot right after the Legislature approved no-excuse-needed absentee ballots for all voters last month. It never arrived, and she was unable to get to the polls Tuesday, she said.

"It just feels very frustrating," said Barber, of Columbia. "The Legislature took action to afford everyone the opportunity to vote by absentee ballot and obviously people took advantage of it, so this really undermines my faith in trying to do this again."

It was 4 a.m. when Richland County Elections Commission Chairman Charles Austin returned home from collecting ballots cast at precincts around the county.

A shortage of poll workers willing to volunteer amid fears of contracting COVID-19 led to long lines at a number of combined precincts, with voters still waiting to cast their vote five hours after polls closed. While similar issues occurred in other parts of the state, they were particularly acute in Richland County.

"It's clear we need more extensive and intensive recruitment efforts," Austin said.

Austin said the commission also would spend the day after verifying and looking into complaints raised that certain races didn't appear on ballots as well as reports of handwritten ballots.

"Those (problems) that are within our control are the ones that we'll deal with," he said.

Austin said it was also clear the county has some poll workers that need to be retrained. He confirmed that almost all of the training poll workers received was done virtually due to the virus preventing in-person instruction. He said the commission will work to reduce the combining of precincts for future election days.

When asked whether he was concerned that state officials may once again step in as the county continues to be plagued with polling problems, Austin simply stated the state commission has been helpful and that the county looks forward to continuing to work with it on corrective action.

And when asked his thoughts on the possibility that a number of voters were unable to vote on some of the races in their district due to ballot issues, Austin said, "I just hope they're not disheartened or frustrated to the point they don't vote in future elections."

Glenn Smith and Jessica Holdman contributed to this report. Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove. 

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