The Richland County voting debacle

Early this morning, Doug Ross expressed his displeasure that the sales tax referendum for transportation had passed in Richland County.

Well, maybe and maybe not.

I got an email from the campaign pushing for a “yes” vote at 12:54 this afternoon, saying:

Friends and Leaders,

Some of you have asked about the results of the penny referendum from yesterday’s vote.  As you may know, we are still waiting on the count from 20 boxes across the county and the absentee ballot.

You all will be the first to know as soon as we hear!

Which brings me to my topic. If Richland County leaders are ever to hope to win any trust from the people who voted “no” on that referendum purely because they don’t trust the effectiveness of the aforementioned Richland County leaders, then they need to get to the bottom of what caused the outrageousness of people — including Mayor Steve Benjamin — still standing in line to vote into the middle of the night. As the mayor said on the telly last night (or was it in the wee hours of this morning? I forget), if this were a statewide problem, that would be one thing. But this stands out as an utter failure in Richland County.

Who was responsible? Whose job was it to carry out the simple, obvious task of making sure the machines worked at some time before 7 a.m. Tuesday? What will be done going forward to make sure this never, ever happens again.

I hope to learn some answers soon.

54 thoughts on “The Richland County voting debacle

  1. Steven Davis II

    Interesting thing is that people I talk to and the people commenting on The State, nobody is really sure if they’ve ever met anyone who planned to vote Yes on the tax increase. Yet it seems to be passing just fine.

    Doesn’t matter, if it hadn’t passed it would have just come up again in a couple weeks under a different name.

    Thank God I live in Lexington County… now improved and Knottsless.

  2. Brad

    Whereas most of the people I run into favored the referendum. But when I say “most,” I don’t mean 90 percent, just a majority. I know plenty of people — right here on the blog, for instance — in the “no” camp.

    I wouldn’t be so sure that our Knottsless county is “improved” by having Katrina Shealy represent a portion of it. Which is why I don’t object strongly to The State’s failure to endorse in that race — it was an unfortunate set of choices.

  3. Lynn

    The blame game goes like this, blame voter turnout…not more than 2008.
    Then blame past director of elections. Whinny. Then have the Lege Delegation blame County Council for not funding more voting machines, which then leads to County Council blaming Lege Delegation for not funding. Circular firing squad. Default to again blaming voters.

    On the bright side: Voting is now an occasion to tailgate. You vote early bring breakfast casserole and Mimosas vote later BBQ and Buds. Coolers and chairs maybe even a satellite receiver so you can watch returns when you’re still in line at 11 p.m. So you can be sure to vote for the winner!

  4. Brad

    Actually, I suppose this presents an interesting opportunity to study the bandwagon effect. Richland was always expected to go for Obama, but I wonder whether there was an increase in the rate of voting for him after his victory was announced…

  5. Doug Ross

    This link goes to the most recent Richland County election board meeting held on November 1, 2012. Wonder if we can get the minutes to that meeting?

    Here’s the names on the letterhead:



    Have any of those people come out of the bunker to face the voters in this county?

  6. Bryan Caskey

    Incompetency. That’s the biggest problem with government from the local level all the way to the federal level.

    It seems that the problem is no one is accountable. No one gets sanctioned, publicly reprimanded, or fired for screwing up something like this.

    In the private sector, people get fired for much smaller screw-ups. In the public sector, it’s just the faceless behemoth of the “government” that is never accountable and doesn’t really have any incentive to do better.

    When I was first starting out as a lawyer, an old and well-respected litigator told me that 75% of what motivated him to do a good job was fear of messing up.

    Does anyone think that applies to public sector workers?

    Brad’s exactly right. I voted “no” on the penny tax for a multitude of reasons. Near the top of the list was the fact that I didn’t trust the local government to handle the money properly.

    We know from experience that they couldn’t even handle getting voting machines properly allocated. It’s not like the election was a surprise. November 6 comes right after November 5. It’s right there on the calendar. Either Richland County doesn’t have access to a calendar or their incompetent.

    In the grand scheme, screwing up with the voting machines isn’t that big of a deal. It’s a small thing.

    But it reminds me of what my dad used to tell me when I was little and didn’t follow through with a simple task:

    “If I can’t trust you to do the little things right, how can I trust you to do the important things right?”

  7. Steven Davis II

    To me it’s better, I’ve purposely voted in past elections for no other reason than to vote against Jake Knotts. If we have to deal with Shealy for four years I’m willing to do so, then vote for whoever runs against her in 2016.

  8. Doug Ross

    How is it that The State doesn’t have any comment from Shealy or Knotts yet? At least I can’t find anything. I would think that would be the lead story — getting Jake Knotts to admit defeat.

  9. Steve Gordy

    Something else historic happened yesterday: Burl was quoted (by name) in The Wall Street Journal. As far as I know, they quoted him accurately.

  10. Brad

    Hey, that’s awesome, Burl! I missed that…

    Everybody, here’s the link, and here’s an excerpt:

    “HONOLULU—The Navy base on Ford Island, the bull’s-eye of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor seven decades ago, still bears scars from that day of infamy: The tarmac shows pockmarks from shrapnel, hangar windows contain bullet holes and the airstrip where the Japanese bombed U.S. planes remains eerily intact despite encroaching weeds.

    “Now, to the consternation of some retired military officers and history buffs, the U.S. Navy wants to cover up some of that history. The Navy wants to install 60,000 solar panels on the tarmac and surround them with a 7-foot-high fence…

    “‘This is sacred ground,’ said Burl Burlingame, curator of the Pacific Aviation Museum on the island, as he stepped out of a car onto the weed-covered tarmac. ‘We have almost a religious obligation to preserve it.'”…

  11. bud

    In the private sector, people get fired for much smaller screw-ups.

    Or if you’re a high level executive you get promoted or rewarded a big bonus for screwing the companies employees or it’s customers. That’s why government healthcare (VA, Medicare) spends a far higher percentage of it’s revenue of actual treatments and less on overhead than does the private sector insurance-based healthcare.

  12. bud

    Bryan I’ll just make this one last comment defending government. Lexington and Kershaw counties had very few problems. Does that mean government is actually very efficient? Or do we just ignore those instances when government does a good job to keep the myth alive that ONLY the private sector can EVER do anything right. As a government employee I find all this government bashing offensive.

  13. Brad

    Good point about all the places where the election went fine, Bud.

    But as you say, that doesn’t prove government is inherently better any more than the Richland County example points to the private sector being better.

    I believe it’s a serious mistake to believe that one or the other is inherently better. These are all human endeavors, and subject to human failings.

    I don’t want to get onto a big tangent, but I find the assertion by my libertarian friends that the private sector is held accountable and the public sector is not to be seriously mistaken.

    In my experience, the public sector — because it IS public, and must answer to us all, and makes its mistakes very publicly — is far more likely to get CAUGHT doing something wrong, and have to answer for it. The reasons why you can think of instances where that did not happen is because it happened in the open, where you could see it. The private sector is by definition less transparent, and doesn’t have to answer to us at all.

    Yes, a smart businessman tries to make sure he always pleases his customers, but the notion that there is something magical about markets that always makes that happen is completely unpersuasive. I have too much experience WORKING in the private sector to have any faith in its inherent superiority. I’ve seen the screw-ups, and I’ve seen how seldom anyone answers for them.

    The people responsible for this Richland County mess may or may not answer for their failure. But they are more or less as likely to do so as someone working behind the curtains of a private company.

  14. Brad

    And the idea that public workers don’t walk in fear of messing up doesn’t match my experience of observing the public sector over all these years. Public workers go around in terror of a screwup, because they know it’s less likely to go unnoticed than in the private sector.

  15. Brad

    As a longtime journalist, I’ve had the experience of both public and private workers not wanting to see me coming. The difference is that the private company worker can tell me to go to hell and get off the private property. The government worker doesn’t have that ability…

  16. Bryan Caskey

    Bud, the difference is that the public sector works for the public. We pay your salary. As Brad says, they are both human endeavors and neither will be perfect.

    However, I’m more concerned with how Richland County operates. I pay for it. And it failed me on Thursday. Failed.

  17. Burl Burlingame

    At my paper, virtually everyone we endorsed lost. In the newsroom, we referred to the endorsements as “the kiss of death.”

    At the polling p[lace I worked at yesterday, we were overwhelmed by voters. Ran out of paper ballots mid-afternoon, and stayed open after hours to make sure everyone who got in the door before closing was able to vote on our one electronic machine. People stood in line for hours to do so. Proud of them. Don’t care who they voted for.

  18. Brad

    And you’re absolutely right to demand such accountability from your government. You’re supposed to do that; that’s one of the things about the public sector being public.

  19. susanincola

    I think Lillian McBride was made head of the Richland County Elections Commission in June/July of last year. She previously had been in charge of just voter registration, but then was made head of all of it, instead of Mike Cinnamon, who was head of it previously. Mr Cinnamon I think then retired. I believe they also updated the budget for the commission by a fair amount at that time. She hired Cheryl Goodwin to be in charge of the voting machines. Ms Goodwin was previously at the SC Election Commission. So there’s some basics on who is responsible, at least directly, for getting machines that work out to polling places.

  20. Phillip

    What happened in Richland County was outrageous, but I was moved by the sight of people standing in line to be counted even if the results were know. …many of them were in line before Obama was announced as the national winner, and in any case wouldn’t that be just as much of a disincentive to keep hanging out for hours in line as an incentive? Especially since long before Obama was declared the national winner, SC was called for Romney. I think Romney had his say at that fundraiser about what he thought about people who don’t breathe the same rarefied air as he does, and yesterday was everybody else’s turn for their say, in response.

    The economy may not be where many or most want it to be, but a slim majority agreed that the alternative was not in the economic interests of anybody except the top 10-20% .

  21. Brad

    Apparently, there are still thousands of ballots left uncounted, which leaves several contests in limbo. Joe McCulloch may or may not be the winner in House District 75, for instance. And we still don’t know about the transportation referendum.

    Reps. James Smith and Todd Rutherford are calling for hearings, and promising to get to the bottom of this.

    Why, you ask, are STATE LEGISLATORS the ones talking about acting, rather than someone on the local level? Because, like so many other local executive functions in South Carolina, the Richland County Election Commission answers to the county’s legislative delegation. Really. Instead of some local official who could be held accountable, or someone directly in charge on the state level, authority is diffused among a group of people, each with his own separate constituency, who were elected to make state laws, and not to run agencies.

    Welcome to Power Failure, people. I’ve been going on about this sort of thing for two decades…

  22. bud

    I believe it’s a serious mistake to believe that one or the other is inherently better. These are all human endeavors, and subject to human failings.

    I agree 100%. Government or private entities can do go jobs or truly be awful. Why don’t the capitalist zealots understand that?

  23. Kathryn Fenner

    The fact that people were voting in such great numbers despite the near certainty at 7 PM that Romney would be our state’s winner is very heartening. Does anyone really think the numbers were due to a huge turnout for the ballot questions or local representatives?

  24. Bryan Caskey

    “Lexington and Kershaw counties had very few problems. Does that mean government is actually very efficient?”

    No. It means that those counties have people that did their freakin’ job. Congratulations, you did your job. What do you want, a medal? It’s your JOB.

    “Or do we just ignore those instances when government does a good job to keep the myth alive that ONLY the private sector can EVER do anything right.”

    Bud, obviously the private sector doesn’t do EVERYTHING right. No one would argue they do. However, competition is a good motivator. If you don’t do a good job for your client, someone else will. Who else is competing with Richland County to allow me to vote in a timely manner?

    “As a government employee I find all this government bashing offensive.”


  25. Burl Burlingame

    Demanding such accountability from your government is something newspapers are SUPPOSED to do.

    BTW, I razzed the WSJ reporter at the time for sitting on the story too long. Nice guy. Yes, I’m quoted accurately.

  26. Stan Dubinsky

    To adequately address the voting machine problems that this county faces, it is clear that we will need to have AN ADDITIONAL 1 cent sales tax increase, plus an accompanying bond issue to secure the loan to buy new machines (from someone related or close to those running the elections or county council).

  27. Steven Davis II

    I have yet to figure out why polling places can’t use touch screen computers. For that matter, I don’t know why we can’t vote online… we can file income taxes online without problems.

  28. Scout

    Yo, Bryan, one very tired public sector employee here reporting that yes, I worry a lot about messing up. It certainly seems to me that my colleagues do too. For me, its more an intrinsic reward kind of thing rather than public accountability that is the motivator. I don’t want to screw up / fail a kid. It is my job to be an advocate for kids who quite literally can’t speak for themselves.

  29. Brad

    I do not. Voting does not need to get easier, so that we can do it even more thoughtlessly than so many people seem to do already.

    You ought to have to make an effort. You should at least have the time it takes to drive or walk to the polling place, and the time standing in line, to THINK about the awesome duty you are about to engage in.

    It must not be made, any more than it is, something you can easily do on the spur of the moment…

  30. Steven Davis II

    Brad what’s easier than absentee ballots? You get a ballot in the mail, you fill it out and put it in an envelope and mail it back.

    If you want to make it more difficult, then eliminate everything but standing in line on Election Day. Even those drive-up voting lanes.

    What about those poor, poor people in Richland County who can’t get to the polls because the bus system no longer travels by that location?

    I don’t remember ever thinking about the candidates while standing in line, all I remember thinking is “What the F is taking so long up there.” Then I look around realize that it’s because I’m smarter than everyone else around me and start thinking that they shouldn’t let dumb people vote.

    Here’s how online voting would work. You register as a voter… two weeks before Election Day you receive an access code to enter to access the ballot you qualify for during the voting hours on Election Day. Then the screens just like the electronic voting machines appear and you vote and confirm your ballot. Results wouldn’t take hours or days, they’d be available immediately as the poll closes. All of this would be on secure and encrypted systems.

    I bet Apple could even write an app for your iPhone.

  31. Doug Ross


    How many of your fellow employees have you seen get fired for performance reasons? My experience being around the teaching profession for twenty years is that there is no such thing as a bad teacher… employees with performance issues are shuffled around from job to job.

  32. Kathryn Fenner

    Brad, People who waited in the two hour line, including a prominent cookbook author and first spouse, were carefully perusing the copies of the proposed penny tax and Gov Lite provided by the election people. If these people didn’t have their minds made up by then, what is the point of making me stand for two hours with a bum leg?

  33. Scout


    a few.

    However I think that is irrelevant to the point I was making that employees can be intrinsically motivated to do a good job.

  34. Scout

    @ Bryan ‘ “Lexington and Kershaw counties had very few problems. Does that mean government is actually very efficient?”

    No. It means that those counties have people that did their freakin’ job. Congratulations, you did your job. What do you want, a medal? It’s your JOB.’

    No, I think just the acknowledgement that frequently government workers do, in fact, do their jobs adequately, would be enough. There is a pervasive belief to the contrary among some.

  35. O.M. "Buddy" Mann

    It weren’t broke but sumbody had to fix it:

    “chose Lillian McBride >>>over<<< longtime elections director Mike Cinnamon . . ."

    From The State June 4, 2011

    After nearly two years of discussion, Richland County has merged its election and voter registration offices and selected the head of the voter office to lead the combined agency. A unanimous legislative delegation Thursday chose Lillian McBride over longtime elections director Mike Cinnamon, the chairman and vice chairman of the delegation said Friday. Cinnamon, who has held the…

  36. Leon Smith

    My wife and I arrived at the Jewish Community Center in NE Richland County at 10:00 A.M. and finally voted at 2:15 P.M. There were 6 voting machines but one was broken. Another one was constantly in use in the car line for handicapped voters. Yes, there was even a long line of cars with people waiting to vote. I have never observed this at this polling place before. Once inside it was obvious that the room where the voting was taking place was way too small for the number of people voting. The lady who took my information seemed to be in a fog and required help from someone else. While I was waiting for a machine a poll watcher from the NAACP asked me how my day was going. I told her it had taken us 4 hours to vote and that was just simply outrageous. She agreed. I do not want this to be a one day old story and then forgotten. Someone needs to lose their job over this simply because they did not do their job. It should not solely be about fixing the problem before next election day. Oh, and by the way, why do they take a voting machine out to the handicapped voters in the car line when it is sorely needed inside? For heaven’s sake, why can’t the car voters vote by paper ballots?

  37. Doug Ross

    The pragmatic thing to do would be to hold a special election within the next two weeks but only include those races where the final result was within 5-10%. There’s no sense recounting all the unopposed races.

    But for certain races, even the appearance of voting irregularities warrants a true count of the people’s votes.

  38. Doug Ross

    The fact that the sales tax increase vote went from a razor thin margin on Tuesday night to a 10,000 vote advantage overnight when the absentee ballots were counted is VERY suspicious. No other race shifted that much.

    The “absentee” ballot process was abused. It is only allowed in specific circumstances and was instead used as an early voting mechanism. And when I went to vote absentee (because I travel out of state Monday-Thursday), there was a woman standing outside the Richland County Elections office doors encouraging people in line to vote for the sales tax.

  39. Doug Ross

    I wonder if it is possible to file a FOI request to get the names of everyone under the age of 65 who voted absentee and the reason given? They collected that information on a form when I voted. That data is somewhere.

  40. bud

    If you don’t do a good job for your client, someone else will.

    I hear this over and over again from conservatives and it just ain’t so. Once an industry becomes concentrated into a handful of comapanies the competitive incentive is dramatically reduced and we end up with a disater like Enron that caused many to suffer. Capitalism is useful but let’s not treat it like a religion. That’s how we end up with disasters like the home mortgage collapse. Capitalism is a tool and like any tool should be treated with respect. Otherwise it can burn you just as sure as fire.

  41. bud

    You ought to have to make an effort. You should at least have the time it takes to drive or walk to the polling place, and the time standing in line, to THINK about the awesome duty you are about to engage in.

    How naive can you get. Many people just cannot get time off from work to vote during a single designated day. I suggest early voting for several days. All the same silly notions Brad suggests regarding the pride of civic duty standing in line with ones neighbors would still apply. It would just allow more options for people with busy, rigid schedules.

  42. Steven Davis II

    ” including a prominent cookbook author”

    Didn’t know there was such a thing. I’d think if they were that good they’d prefer the title Chef instead.

  43. tavis micklash

    As of 5 am still 2 precincts are yet to be posted for Richland County.

    This is the last county in the state to have not fully completed the electronic posting as of yet.

    Heads should roll.


    Doug said”The fact that the sales tax increase vote went from a razor thin margin on Tuesday night to a 10,000 vote advantage overnight when the absentee ballots were counted is VERY suspicious. No other race shifted that much.”

    Im sorry but I just dont see the conspiracy.

    It was HUGE democratic turnout in Richland county due to the presidential election. Look at the numbers that voted straight party.

    I think THAT and the chamber’s effective campaign the weighted the scales. They couldn’t even put machines in the precints. Do you really think them capable to rig a vote?

    Emotions just weren’t that high on the YES side of the house. Look at the debate. The passion was on the NO side. I don’t think anyone on the YES side cared enough to stuff the ballot box and risk their political lives.

    Only reason it was even on the ballot was the dire straights of the buses.

  44. Steven Davis II

    Ha, it gets even better toward the bottom of the article:

    “In those 44 districts, Mr. Obama won 14,686 to 23.”

    I believe that county may be able to show Richland County election officials a thing or two on how to run an polling site or two.

  45. Herbert H. Moore

    No one has mentioned that the Poll Managers have not been paid. Today is Tuesday 11/27/12 In the past (I have been a Poll Manager for the past 20+ years for all elections in Richland County anD was paid in 2-3 weeks. I fear the NEW MANAGERS ARE MORE INTERESTED IN THE BIGGER PAY THAN FOR QUALITY SERVICE.


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