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Michael Letts

By Michael Letts || One of The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper’s first reactions to the recent Richland County election debacle was – bizarrely – to create the perception that a new election was both impractical and unnecessary.  The newspaper even declined to run an editorial I submitted about why a new election was the only way to restore public faith in our democratic processes.

In addition, a handful in the local political establishment — including some who pushed for voter approval of a county-wide sales tax increase — have tried to marginalize the growing chorus of citizens who are calling for a new election in Richland County.

It’s easy to see why the pro-tax crowd is against a re-vote.  While the’ve not yet filed a spending report with the S.C. Ethics Commission, the pro-tax campaign reportedly spent a quarter-million dollars — and pulled out all the stops — to pass this tax increase.  And County Council kicked in tens of thousands in public dollars to persuade people to vote “yes.”

Still, of 154,000 votes cast, there were only 6,600 more “yes” votes than “no” votes.

We’ll never know what the outcome might have been had the election not been bungled, causing Richland County to have the second-lowest voter participation rate in the entire state (Richland’s voter participation rate typically exceeds the statewide participation rate). But what is clear is that the pro-tax campaign doesn’t like its prospects in a new election in which all voters are given an opportunity to participate.

They know people just aren’t crazy about this tax increase, and while a new election may not be the perfect solution, it’s the best solution – as safeguarding citizens’ ability to participate in the democratic process should be our highest priority.

In this case, that means a do-over.

The November 6 elections simply weren’t valid.  State law requires one voting machine for every 250 registered voters in each precinct. This isn’t merely a “suggestion,” it’s the law.  That means it’s not optional – it’s mandatory.  Yet, the county Board of Elections chose to ignore this requirement.

The county’s failure to put out enough machines resulted in long lines and excessive wait times, and caused thousand to be unable to vote. In essence, the decision to use fewer machines than the law requires was tantamount to a decision to hold invalid elections.

One of the lowlights of this episode is the response of the county’s legislative delegation, which last year selected Lillian McBride to run the Board of Elections over longtime director Mike Cinnamon. Because the delegation has oversight authority over the Board of Elections, its members bear much responsibility for the fiasco.

Yet while some legislators have made it a point to express outrage over the voting problems, few have offered any real, substantive solutions. Sure, some advocate firing Ms. McBride and making sure this “never happens again,” but that’s hardly bold leadership.  Nearly everyone agrees Ms. McBride should be replaced and that changes are in order.  Lawmakers who have tried to grab headlines with “tough talk” about the voting problems have merely been playing to voters in their districts.

If the lawmakers that helped create this mess aren’t pushing for a new election, they’re part of the problem.

On November 15, I was among a group of citizens who submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the delegation seeking correspondence regarding Ms. McBride’s hiring last year.  Only one lawmaker has responded.  The rest have been silent.  Perhaps that’s because lawmakers view themselves as exempt from open-records laws. S till, it shows arrogance to withhold public records at a time the public is demanding answers.

We submitted the FOIA request to determine if Ms. McBride’s close proximity to Frank McBride – who was a key get-out-the-vote operative for the tax increase – played a role in her hiring.  Lillian McBride is reported to be related by marriage to Frank McBride, but that’s hard to confirm; at the delegation’s recent “fact-finding” hearing, delegation chairman Darrell Jackson cleverly asked Lillian McBride only whether she’s “directly” related to Frank McBride.

She answered “no,” but left unanswered was whether the two are related by marriage as has been reported.

Mr. Jackson is Ms. McBride’s most visible defender, encouraging her to say less, not more, about what went wrong. At the “fact-finding” hearing, he cut off those who questioned her about the problems.  His ridicule is reserved for the frustrated voters, and he characterizes even the most benign questions about conflicts of interests as “conspiracy theories.”

Mr. Jackson’s words remind me of the Shakespeare line, “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.”  It’s often used as a reference to someone who unwittingly raises questions about his or her own conduct by proclaiming their innocence a bit too loudly.

Mr. Jackson’s close ties to the “Vote Yes” campaign are hard to ignore.  The manager of the “Vote Yes” campaign, Heyward Bannister, is the co-founder of Mr. Jackson’s public relations firm.  And Bannister’s political consulting firm, Banco, lists the same street address (924 Hampton Street) and phone number (771-0325) as Mr. Jackson’s business.

And despite having no opposition this year, Mr. Jackson on Oct. 26 paid $1,000 from his campaign account to Daybreak Consulting — the firm for which Frank McBride lists himself as CEO — according to Mr. Jackson’s campaign disclosure.

It’s appropriate for people to question whether the delegation chairman’s conflicts undermine this body’s ability to impartially navigate the challenge before them.  Those well-meaning citizens who do raise questions don’t deserve to be lumped in with “Elvis-is-alive” conspiracists as Mr. Jackson says..

If Mr. Jackson’s delegation fails to impose sufficient accountability reforms, watch as the public trust erodes even further. That’s something we can’t afford.  Nor can we afford to send the message to citizens that their participation in the election process isn’t valued.

When it comes to restoring public trust, nothing should be off-the-table – including a new election.  Besides, citizens must have confidence that our elections — the cornerstone of American democracy — truly reflect the will of the voters. That can’t happen unless we hold a valid election in accordance with the law.


Michael Letts, a Richland County resident, is a volunteer chaplain with both SLED and the Columbia Police Department, as well as founder of a charity that equips law enforcement officers with bulletproof vests. He’s also co-chair of Citizens for New Elections in Richland County.