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Where was Jimmy Carter when we needed him?
Following his term as president, Carter has traveled the world building houses for Habitat for Humanity and building democracies by monitoring elections.
I don’t know where Jimmy was on Nov. 6, but we certainly could have used him in Richland County, where we had an election that if it were called “Third World,” would defame Third-World countries.
The Richland County legislative delegation, in a bi-partisan move, decided to combine the Richland County Voter Registration Office and the Richland County Election Commission. The head of the registration office was installed as the head of the new combined office, displacing a fellow who had run municipal and county elections in Richland County for 40 years with very few complaints. The voter registration executive had never run an election, and never got in touch with her predecessor to confirm that she knew how to do it.
A woman who has run a polling place since 1975 told me that when she went the Friday before the election to pick up material for her poll, there were no credentials for the poll managers and the cart she was given to transport the material was missing a wheel and the handle. She told me it took two hours for the staff to print credentials for her poll managers.
Unfortunately, that was the high point of the election in terms of efficiency.
The precinct had four voting machines, three of which were operational. According to state law, they should have had double that number. When a technician came to repair the broken machine, he said it needed new batteries, and he didn’t have any. As he left the poll, he took the printer with him, even though there was nothing wrong with it. The printer was needed to tally the votes after the poll closed.
Voters at that precinct had to wait several hours to vote, and calls to the election office were unsuccessful in getting additional machines or repairs to the broken one.
Then the votes were to be counted. Then the fun started.
Opponents of a referendum on an increase in the sales tax were confident that the long lines at polls and broken machines were responsible for the passage of the referendum. Democrats were convinced the vote was wrong when all the absentee ballots in one precinct went for the Republican House candidate when President Barack Obama carried the precinct by a 60 to 40 percent margin.
The Democrats went to court and a circuit judge ordered SLED to impound the voting machines and related equipment. The Republicans countered by going to the S.C. Supreme Court to ask that court to stop the Circuit Court from acting. The Republicans weren’t parties to the Democrat’s suit, so they had to ask the Supreme Court to hear their request in the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction – a rare procedure. The Republicans asked for a writ of prohibition, which, had it been issued, would have prohibited the Circuit Court from issuing any more orders regarding the recount.
The Supreme Court asked Republicans and Democrats to file briefs regarding the request for the writ of prohibition proceeding, but prior to the deadline for those briefs, the Democrats and the Richland County Election Commission agreed to dismiss the suit in Circuit Court so the Democrats could tell the Supreme Court there was no Circuit Court proceeding to be prohibited.
The Republicans responded by not objecting to the dismissal of the Circuit Court action (there was no procedural way such an objection could have been made), agreeing that their Supreme Court petition was now moot, but asking the Supreme Court to prevent the recount of votes in House District 75.
The Supreme Court set aside the initial Circuit Court order, directed SLED to return the voting machines to the Election Commission, gave both the county and state Election Commissions deadlines for counting and certifying all votes from the county and said any recount in District 75 was to be done by the election commissions.
Hardly any voter in Richland County has any confidence that the outcome of the count will actually reflect the will of the voters.
I suspect other counties have similar dysfunctionality. Maybe it is time we got serious about the role of voting in our democracy. Newspapers can help by reporting on strategies that will make voting so easy that anyone who wishes can vote. If I can get money from a machine almost any place in the world using a plastic card and a unique identifying number, why can’t we figure out how to have voting that is as convenient?
Of course, Jimmy Carter goes to these Third-World countries to monitor elections because there are people in power who don’t trust democratic outcomes. We’ve laughed about the old political line in South Carolina, “Vote early, vote often, count late,” but perhaps we need to make it a reality that we can vote early, vote easily and have our vote counted accurately. Then we will call on Jimmy Carter only to help us build the next Habitat home.
Jay Bender is the holder of the Reid H. Montgomery Chair in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina and the attorney for the S.C. Press Association.