Back in 2011, someone built a door into the thin wall between the Richland County Election Commission office and the county Board of Voter Registration office.
State lawmakers had recently passed a bill merging the two offices into one big Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, so it must have seemed a logical step.
But the state law merging the offices was unconstitutional, a circuit judge ruled in 2013. State lawmakers aren’t supposed to write laws that apply to just one county, which is exactly what they’d done.
Still, for months after the judge’s ruling, the election commission didn’t do much to change — the commission wasn’t actually a party to the lawsuit, and it was waiting for the Legislature to tell it what to do. Last month, the commission began putting together a plan to comply.
But that wasn’t good enough, Judge Thomas G. Cooper Jr. ruled last week. Cooper issued a temporary restraining order to stop the board from conducting any more business until it comes back into compliance with the state constitution.
Now, the two boards have been split up again; they begin meeting separately this week, says attorney Alex Postic, who was recently hired to represent the boards. There’s even discussion about whether they should get rid of that door.
But not all the recent changes being made at the Richland County administration building are sitting well with the public.
Rusty DePass, the local conservative activist who brought the lawsuit against the board, isn’t happy that Lillian McBride is once again head of the Board of Voter Registration.
“I think the idea of setting up the offices with the same personnel that were there before the unconstitutional law was passed is a fairly bizarre way to approach improving the government,” DePass says.
McBride headed the Board of Voter Registration for decades. When the offices were merged in 2011, state lawmakers put her in charge of the entire Board of Elections and Voter Registration. The 2012 general election was a disaster, with missing and broken machines, hours-long waits, missing ballots, a botched recount and more.
An investigation found that an unnamed employee had committed most of the foul-ups that contributed to the 2012 election disaster. But investigator Steve Hamm also found McBride had failed to oversee employees and catch key errors in the months before the election.
After weeks of closed-door negotiations, McBride resigned as director in early 2013, but was immediately rehired to a position in charge of voter registration, reporting to the director. And now, because of the split, she’s back in charge of the separated voter registration office — doing the same job, but without a director above her.
Postic says McBride is “unfortunately in the public crosshairs.”
As the public looked for someone to blame, Rep. James Smith suggested in an April 4 WLTX interview that voters should understand that the most recent changes, including McBride’s new role, are a result of DePass’ lawsuit, not the actions of legislators. Smith is sponsoring a bill that would bring the county back in line with the state constitution.
“I understand people’s concerns, but when they look into the details, nobody appointed her to anything — and it shouldn’t be about Lillian McBride, it’s about moving forward with a new board of leadership,” Smith said.
DePass calls Smith’s suggestion “poppycock.”
“Those people are the ones who messed the whole thing up,” he says of the state legislators.
“The idea that anybody would have ever done anything about the situation in Richland if we hadn’t filed a lawsuit is preposterous,” DePass adds.
As the squabbling continues, there are other details to work out as the two offices split. For one thing, there’s some disagreement over how many seats are actually open on the five-member election commission. Some 40 people have applied to be on the board, and the delegation is taking more applications. (The Board of Voter Registration, meanwhile, is made up of county employees.)
Those seats need to be filled soon, as the June primary looms. In fact, Jim Carpenter, the attorney who brought the suit on DePass’ behalf, wants Gov. Nikki Haley to step in and appoint some board members, since legislators have missed a deadline for appointing new members.
Then there’s the most confusing part of the judge’s order — seemingly for both sides: “The court finds that Defendant board was abolished effective December 30, 2013, and that all actions taken by Defendant Board since December 30, 2013, are null and void.”
Does that mean Howard Jackson, who was fired in February as director of the commission, still has a job?
“Has a job with whom?” Carpenter asks. “He was hired by the unified board, which was dissolved.”
Carpenter says he doesn’t think Sam Selph, who was appointed to replace Jackson, technically has a job, either.
Postic says he’s still working on understanding the ramifications of the order.
A hearing before Judge Cooper is tentatively set for April 25.
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