Ron Aiken: Was The “Penny Tax” Vote Rigged?
They were inarguably the worst-run county elections in living memory, a farce of indefensible incompetency and gross mismanagement – and that’s the best-case, most-forgiving scenario.
A more sinister scenario, the whispers about which have only intensified in the weeks and months since that cold day in November, is that the fix was in from the beginning.
Armed with the incentive of passing a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax scheduled to deliver $1.07 billion over the next 21 years beginning with a $450 million appetizer available now, elected officials and powerful business interests had a billion-dollar motive, critics allege, one made especially tantalizing given how close they came back in 2010 when the tax effort failed by a razor-thin 1.88-percent margin, or 2,168 votes out of 115,118 cast according to State Election Commission statistics.
Those critics argue that following the 2010 vote the pro-penny forces immediately set their sights on the 2012 election, putting their own key people quietly in place such as Richland County Election Director Lilian McBride, financing a reported $300,000 advertising campaign that included $50,000 in public money and allegedly manipulating both the number of machines made available on election day and producing a record number of absentee ballots that continued to surface long after the polls closed. The result was public outrage, yes, but also a successfully delivered penny tax vote, which passed by a comfortable 6,591 votes for a 52-48 margin of victory.
Amidst a climate of suspicion, anger and public mistrust, what is certain is that untold thousands of Richland County citizens were disenfranchised due to excessively long lines created by the allegedly willful misallocation of voting machines, a mistake that hadn’t happened in the previous 37 years of careful management by former county elections director Mike Cinnamon and for which no explanation yet floated satisfies common sense.
No one argues that the state law (Section 7-13-1680) requiring one voting machine per 250 registered voters was broken, and in the next couple of weeks the South Carolina Supreme Court will decide what to do about it when it rules on former Richland County Council candidate and tax-reform advocate Michael Letts’ appeal for a new election.
If the court upholds Letts’ suit, it would mean Gov. Nikki Haley would have 30 days to schedule a new election. If dismissed or denied, the election results – specifically the penny tax – would stand, and the truth about what really happened on Nov. 6, 2012, and the confusing days after may never come to light.
The Calm Before the Storm
Those who believe the 2012 penny tax vote was engineered say the process to do so began immediately after the 2010 defeat and made its first official appearance on March 15, 2011, when Richland County Senators Darrell Jackson, John Courson, John Scott and Joel Lourie introduced a bill allowing them to combine the offices of voter registration and elections and appoint a new director.
With no resistance or opposition or attention of any kind, the bill unanimously passed both a Senate (6-0) and House (59-0) roll call on March 31 and April 13, respectively, was ratified on May 5 and signed into law four days later on May 9, 2011, by Gov. Haley. What the legislation accomplished was to allow the delegation on June 1 to quietly oust longtime county election director Mike Cinnamon, a man who had held the position since 1975 and was widely respected for his experience and knowledge, and replace him with the politically connected Lillian McBride without publicly advertising the position.
For critics such as Letts, the conclusions are all too easy to draw.
“Isn’t it interesting that after failing (to pass the penny tax) in 2010, suddenly the delegation decides the next year they’re going to combine the two offices,” Letts said. “You have Mike Cinnamon, who wants to stay on, who is highly qualified, and he’s told he has no chance to get the job, so he’s out. They bring in who they want, who they can control, and it’s all done without anyone taking notice until it’s too late.”
By combining the two offices, the delegation also authorized an increase in salary for McBride’s new position to $85,000, a significant raise from McBride’s previous salary of $66,429, according to a Nov. 30 story in The State by John Monk. From there, McBride was rewarded with two additional raises prior to the November election, allowing her salary eventually to reach the $89,124 she received until her resignation on Jan. 3, 2013.
McBride’s own hiring practices while in her position also have drawn scrutiny and criticism. Almost immediately upon assuming her new position in July 2011 she hired as her deputy director Gary Baum, the brother-in-law of Sen. Lourie, the Richland County legislative delegation member who was a sponsor of the bill that gave her the position.
Baum, who previously was with the State Election Commission, saw his salary increase more than $13,000, from $55,287 to $68,630 under McBride. A second hire, Cheryl Goodwin, also came over from the State Election Commission that month and saw her salary jump $14,000, from $51,273 to $65,699.
What makes McBride’s hire interesting from a pro-penny tax perspective is that according to several sources and previously published reports, McBride is related to Frank McBride, a disgraced former lawmaker-turned consultant who is married to current Richland County Clerk of Court Jeanette McBride and whose rap sheet includes a felony conviction for selling his vote during the infamous Operation Lost Trust sting of 1991.
At the Dec. 3 Richland County election protest hearing, Frank McBride testified he had “no role in the penny tax campaign,” only admitting he had purchased a disk from Richland County with a list of county voters for the purposes of conducting an unspecified “mail order.” On his Facebook page, Frank McBride describes himself as “CEO/Manager” of Daybreak Consulting, a political consulting firm. In the section “About Frank,” the page states McBride “is respected and known in the political arena. He is consulted by candidates who want to win an election in Richland County.”
Under oath, McBride testified that he had “no” kind of relationship, either personal or business, with Sen. Jackson. Records available on the state ethics commission’s website, however, show otherwise. In his Oct. 10, 2012 pre-election campaign disclosure report required by law, Sen. Jackson claims under “expenditures” a $1,000 payment on Oct. 16, 2012, to “Daybreak Consulting Services” located at 2415 Pinehurst Rd. in Columbia for “consulting services.”
According to a search of the Richland County Assessor’s office online, that address is classified as a single-family residential home, with the owner of record being Frank and Jeanette McBride.
One of the lingering anomalies of the 2012 elections in Richland County centers around the record-high number of absentee ballots submitted, bags of which continued to be discovered long after the polls had closed and whose results of significantly impacted both the penny tax vote and at least one bizarre county council outcome.
For penny tax vote-rigging theorists, the results of the absentee ballots virtually guaranteed both a penny tax win and, in doing so, demonstrated clearly where the alleged electoral shenanigans lay.
According to State Election Commission figures, if you take away absentee ballots, the penny tax passed by a mere 101 votes, 59,015 to 58,914. Let that sink in for a moment. That means that at the ballot box on election day, voters from across all county demographics combined to pass the tax by a margin of just 50.04 percent to 49.95 percent (also bearing in mind that any outcome with a margin of less than one-percent automatically triggers a re-count).
A fair question to ask is whether the absentee ballots, the ones that kept turning up in closets days after the election, reflected the same percentage of voter split on the controversial issue? Hardly, as it turns out. A count of all absentee ballots recorded by the State Election Commission shows the tax passed by 6,490 votes, almost single-handedly establishing the tax’s comfortable margin of victory of 6,591 that penny tax proponents happily trumpet.
How it is that the difference in support of the penny tax at the ballot box can be a mere 101 votes out of 117,929 votes cast while those filing absentee ballots preferred the penny tax at a 60-40 clip (58.93 percent to 41.06 percent)?
In Letts’ eyes, the answer is simple.
“I think the absentee ballots is where this whole thing came together for (the pro-penny tax advocates),” Letts said. “You get your ballots together beforehand, the night of the election you watch the results come in, and if you don’t need them, hey, you go burn them in the incinerator. But if it gets close, you bring them in as needed to nudge it in your favor, and that’s what looked like happened with these bags getting found right and left and the way the numbers on them look.
“I mean, has anyone gone back to verify that the absentee ballots were actually from registered voters? Did anyone go back and match the affidavits for each one of them? How do we know?
“What we do know is that Frank McBride, who was convicted for selling his vote and who we believe was responsible for generating the absentee ballots, was in election headquarters the night of the elections. He was caught on WIS’ cameras behind the desk where the absentee ballots were and was caught on security cameras not leaving the elections office the night of the election til after three in the morning. The whole absentee ballot question has never been investigated properly.”
One unintended effect of the absentee ballots’ predominantly Democratic leanings was that they adversely affected races that no one much expected to be close, such as Kirkman Finlay’s race for House District 75 and two-term incumbent Val Hutchinson’s race to retain her seat representing District 9 in Northeast Richland County. While Finlay won his fight after initially being declared the loser and has since declined to comment publicly on the process, Hutchinson’s saga was far different.
First declared the winner the day after the election, then the loser, Hutchinson finally emerged victorious and stood with other candidates before television cameras and reporters on Monday, Nov. 12 to announce that the election results should be thrown out due to the disenfranchisement that occurred across the county thanks to too few voting machines being installed.
“I thought I had won at that time, I’d been told that I’d won, and as I thought about it, I was so insulted by election and how people were prevented from voting that I couldn’t keep quiet,” Hutchinson said.
“It was so unfair to the people of this county, because the price people paid for these rights; my father was a World War II POW, and I know the price they paid. I couldn’t say nothing though I probably should have just kept my mouth shut.”
The result was that after appearing on camera calling for new elections, she said she received an angry call from Sunrise Communications employee Antjuan Seawright, and two days later another batch of absentee ballots emerged that resulted in her finally losing the race by 217 votes to a challenger in Democrat Julie Ann Dixon running for office for the first time and whom she never met nor seen campaigning.
Once again, just like the penny tax, the ballot box told one story – Hutchinson, a tireless incumbent who spent thousands of dollars (after the campaign she still had $10,322 on hand) and countless hours campaigning, won easily over her little-known opponent by 445 votes. By contrast, Dixon reported only $472 in contributions, filled out no media questionnaires and only appeared on a “sample ballot” circulated by Democratic county councilman Jim Manning, cleaned-up on the heavily Democratic-leaning absentee ballots, claiming a 2,353 to 1,691 edge (58.12 percent to 41.77 percent) that erased Hutchinson’s lead and gave her the margin of victory
“It was absolutely bizarre,” Hutchinson said. “The numbers just didn’t look right and didn’t reflect what happened at the ballot box at all. It really made me wonder whether anyone was checking into the integrity of the absentee ballots at all. Then I got that angry call I didn’t understand; I had no idea who Sunrise Communications was or that they were affiliated with Sen. Jackson. I really didn’t know.
“I can tell you now that it was one of the most traumatic things I’ve ever been through, that whole sad experience. I worked extremely hard in my eight years on council to make Richland County a better place, and in the end I’m forced to watch democracy get made a laughing stock of. People that work in that (Richland County) elections office know. They have to know what really happened, but people are afraid to talk because so much is at stake.
“There’s a fine line between politics and organized crime, and I felt like this election blurred that line. If just one person would come forward, we could get the truth, but no one will because they’re too scared to talk.”
According to numbers provided by Chris Whitmire, director of public information and training for the State Election Commission, the percentage of absentee voters in 2012 was almost double that of the 2010 election. In 2010, 12.3 percent of all votes cast were absentee, while in 2012, that percentage climbed to 23.8 percent of all votes cast. Going back to the 2008 presidential election, one in which the county (76.15 percent) and state (76.02 percent) had a record-high percentage of registered voters turn out, the absentee percentage in Richland County remained negligible, at approximately 17.3 percent, according to State Election Commission figures.
In 2012, with Richland County suffering a below-average turnout for a presidential election due in part to the long lines and longer waits (65.43 percent), significant questions remain that have yet to be answered by county election officials: How and why were the numbers of absentee ballots so high? Why were they continuing to appear long after the election was over? And just how did the county wind up with two separate printings that caused vote recording machines to fail and generated highly suspicious results?
A request for an interview with those precise questions was sent to Richland County election deputy director Gary Baum for this story but never responded to.
What is apparent is that many serious questions still remain about the 2012 elections, questions that go beyond what the Supreme Court will consider when it decides whether the county willfully broke state law by sending out too-few voting machines and what, if anything, the punishment for that will be.
By itself, the statute carries no punishment. Letts and his attorney, Jim Carpenter of Greenville, say rulings in previous cases clearly call for a new election. County attorneys say previous attorney generals’ opinions are equally clear that the statute is meant as a guideline and that there was no disenfranchisement to any appreciable degree because all those who wanted to vote – despite having to wait up to seven hours to do so – could have.
One thing is for sure: the Supreme Court’s decision, likely to come by the end of the month, will mark the end of the road for the challenge one way or the other, and those involved will go their separate ways. Letts will go back to his business dealing with providing vests for law enforcement, while for her trouble, McBride’s performance earned her a ticket back out of the public spotlight and cozy going-away deal that shocked even the most casual observers, allowing her to get her old job back with a new title (deputy director of voter registration) and a 12-percent pay raise ($74,000) over what she earned in that role before.
For those hoping for an investigation into criminal wrongdoing, Letts is skeptical based on what he’s seen so far. His repeated complaints via letter, phone calls and emails to Richland County solicitor Dan Johnson have gone unanswered. Letts believes that’s because Johnson’s own political campaign was run by Heyward Bannister, the leader of the pro-penny tax “Vote Yes” campaign and whose business, BANCO/Bannister Co., lists the same physical address (924 Hampton St.) and phone number (803-771-0325) as Sen. Jackson’s Sunrise Communications, of which Bannister is credited as a founding member.
For Letts, it’s one more stone wall, one more conflict of interest in a sea of them he’s uncovered since he first began putting his challenge together less than seven days after the Nov. 6 election.
“I’ve tried to bring up all these things to the person I’m supposed to take complaints to (Johnson), but I can’t even get him to acknowledge my complaints, much less act on them,” Letts said. “I even told him that I know he’s connected closely to the penny-tax people and would he just recuse himself from the investigation and turn it over to SLED, but he won’t acknowledge me at all.”
When contacted for this story, Johnson said he was happy to address why he hadn’t responded to Letts’ complaints.
“I received a letter from Mr. Michael Letts, as well as several calls from Mr. Letts,” Johnson wrote in an emailed response to questions. “I did not directly respond to Mr. Letts in that as a candidate in the November 6th elections, he himself is part of the process.
“What I have done is to formally request a copy of the Richland County Delegation’s report and findings from Attorney Michael Hamm. Upon receipt of the final report and any findings, I would then forward all information this office has to Attorney General Alan Wilson.
“In general my office does acknowledge and respond to complaints. However, as I said before, the only complaint that I have received in regard to the November 6th elections from any citizen is the one from Michael Letts.”
Letts says the entire issue of election irregularities and illegalities, despite its many complexities, can be understood simply.
“I think people were paid to get a job done in 2010, they didn’t get it done and they made damn sure they were going to get it done this time around,” Letts said. “The day after it failed in 2010 they knew it was going back on the ballot, and that desire and pressure came not just from elected officials but from all the business interests in town who stand to make a fortune off this tax.
“The sad part is (if I lose) the bad guys won, and besides me, no one’s doing a thing about it. If that stands, it’s a sad day for all of us. It’s a sad day for America.”
Ron Aiken is an award-winning freelance journalist living in Columbia, S.C. This piece – reprinted with permission – originally ran on MidlandsBiz.com.