South Carolina

SC taxpayers on the hook for consultant to fix Richland County elections agency

South Carolina taxpayers will be on the hook for about $50,000 to fix Richland County’s dysfunctional elections system.

S.C. lawmakers this week voted to hire a consultant to study Richland County’s elections missteps and recommend solutions, after the county failed to count roughly 1,000 votes in the November midterms.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed that proposal last month, saying state taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear that expense. But the General Assembly overrode that veto Tuesday at the behest of Richland County legislators.

S.C. elections officials believe this is the first time the General Assembly has required such an intervention at a county elections office. But it is necessary because the situation in Richland County has become dire, some lawmakers say.

“We’ve got a brand new commission, an interim director and a track record of screwing up elections,” said state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Columbia Republican who worked on the proposal with House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland.

The Richland County Elections and Voter Registration Office has been in turmoil over the past year. It failed to count 1,000 votes in November’s election, an embarrassing mistake that didn’t change the results of any races.

Its entire board was fired by McMaster in February for alleged incompetence. Its new board, picked in March by Richland County legislators, decided last month to fire the agency’s director, Rokey Suleman, and look for a new one.

And it has yet to overcome the reputation it earned in 2012, when long lines and missing votes scarred a presidential election and penny sales tax referendum.

The new proposal requires the State Election Commission to hire the consultant. Rutherford said he expects it to cost $50,000, though the proposal doesn’t specify how much to be spent.

Rutherford said he wants the consultant to recommend “anything we need to do to regain the trust of the citizens of Richland County.”

State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said his office already has been working with Richland County to identify and correct problems that led to the voting snafu in November. That includes training and team-building exercises for the agency’s staff, he said.

Lawmakers didn’t include any extra money in the State Election Commission’s budget to pay for the consultant, so the agency might have to ask for more, Whitmire said.

“It could be a lengthy and costly engagement,” Whitmire said. “Anyone who has used consultants knows the first thing they have to do is find out how everything works ... what went right and what went wrong.”

For 45 minutes Tuesday, it looked as though the proposal would die, when the S.C. Senate initially failed to override McMaster’s veto. But Finlay and Rutherford walked over to the Senate and persuaded senators to override the governor’s veto on their last vote of the day.

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.