Liz Farrell

‘Retaliation’ from SC senator might mean longer lines for Bluffton voters | Opinion

When you come at the old boys’ club, you’d better not miss.

That’s my unsolicited advice to state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, who held up legislation this past spring that would have added three new voting precincts to the fastest-growing parts of Beaufort County — in the very areas that experienced astoundingly long lines last November, one of which persisted for hours after the polls had closed.

Bright Matthews’ intended target appears to have been two members of the Beaufort County and Jasper County legislative delegations.

She didn’t get those guys, though.

Instead, her act of “retaliation,” as state Rep. Bill Herbkersman referred to it this week, has landed at the feet of thousands of Bluffton residents — including those in Bluffton 2C, the single south of the Broad precinct in her district.

Bright Matthews’ perplexing decision to hold up the measure has specific and nonpartisan consequences, namely for seniors who might not be equipped for prolonged standing, for parents who have to deal with squirmy kids holding long-dead tablets, and for the regular old working class, many of whom have to rush to get to their polling locations before 7 p.m. and who still have to put dinner on the table.

Sen. Margie Bright Matthews talks with Sen. Nikki Setzler during an organizational session earlier this week. Tim Dominick

These are not imaginary or hyperbolic subsets of humans that I’m using to make a political point. These are people who are possibly less likely to vote as a result of not being able to find available parking or locate the end of an absurdly long line.

In November 2018, Marie Smalls, the director of the Board of Voter Registration and Elections of Beaufort County — the woman who hears all voting-related complaints and comments in this county — requested additional precincts from the county’s legislative delegation in Columbia to lessen wait times.

Though there are no hard rules about how big a precinct should be in South Carolina, 1,500 registered voters per precinct is generally considered the maximum manageable size, according to Smalls.

That would make 4,500 registered voters the maximum for three precincts.

At the time of Smalls’ request to the delegation, there were 8,996 registered voters in Bluffton 2C, Bluffton 4C and Bluffton 2D, the precincts she had identified as needing to be split.

As of June, Smalls said, those precincts had already grown to 9,672 registered voters, more than double the maximum.

The bill, H. 4499, sponsored by every member of the county’s representatives in the House, proposed moving some voters from those precincts into three new precincts, which would have been called New River, Palmetto Bluff and Sandy Pointe.

It never even occurred to anyone that this bill wouldn’t sail through the Senate because no one has ever seen that happen before with new precinct requests, at least not in the past few decades, according to Smalls and Herbkersman.

State Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort, co-chair of a joint House-Senate pension committee, said lawmakers are ready to work through phase two of the state’s pension reform. Tracy Glantz

I’m not done describing the wounds.

In addition to the practical matter of creating longer wait times for many Bluffton residents, Bright Matthews’ decision to hold up the measure has potential financial consequences for Beaufort County taxpayers.

Yeah. Uh oh, Margie.

Those who were wholly unmoved by the thought of tired, sweaty south-of-the-Broaders roughing it on Election Day are now like, WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY!?

Here’s the lowdown on those pennies: The entire state is expected to have new digital and paper voting-machine setups in place by February, when the Democratic Presidential Primary will be held. The state allocated money for an exact number of machines, plus 5 percent for potential growth. The deadline to ask for that money has passed. Any additional machines this county might need past that 5 percent, which Smalls says we’ve already exceeded, will be billed to this county.

More precincts will likely mean more polling locations, and that means more paper-ballot tabulators will be needed. The tabulating machines are $5,750 each.

While it is unclear at this point what, if any, cost the county might have to assume because of this, it should be super obvious that whenever you hear the words “new voting machines,” you can also assume plenty of time will be needed to adequately prepare and train for the inevitable problems that will occur when they are first used.

Even if Bright Matthews reverses course when the legislature returns in January — which I hope she does — she cannot reverse time. At best, she will create more last-minute, deadline-driven work for the county’s elections office and more confusion for the voters who are moved into new precincts before the primaries.

The worst part is, there are zero good reasons for this.

Oh right, the “reason.”

Herbkersman says Bright Matthews is holding up the bill on the new precincts — as well as a bill that would do the same thing in Jasper County — because she is following through on a threat she made to stall any bill sponsored by him or Rep. Weston Newton, both of whom, like Bright Matthews, represent parts of Jasper County.

Bright Matthews, he said, wanted to be elected as chairperson of that county’s delegation, and she did not have their support.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Beaufort County Legislative Delegation, which Bright Matthews said she had to miss because of a sick relative, Herbkersman got punchy.

“I want people in this room and the public to know that this was done in retaliation,” he said. “I’d like her to answer why.”

While Bright Matthews said she believes Jasper County would be better served by a chairperson who represents a larger portion of the county — she represents about 44 percent of the population there — rather than the representatives who live in Beaufort County, she denies holding up the bill to get back at Newton and Herbkersman.

“I don’t know why he finds it necessary to characterize it this way,” she said Wednesday afternoon.

Bright Matthews said she held up the bill because she was handed it at the last minute, two days before the end of the legislative session, and that didn’t give her enough time for due diligence.

However, the bill, originally called H. 3784 and sponsored by Herbkersman, was sent to the Senate in February.

When Herbkersman heard that Bright Matthews was purposely letting the bill languish, he reintroduced it as H. 4499 in April and added the rest of Beaufort County’s delegation in the House as co-sponsors so that Bright Matthews would see she was acting out not just against him.

Bright Matthews is one of four women in the state Senate and one of 27 women out of 170 total legislators in South Carolina.

The General Assembly is 85 percent male, and it is 75 percent white.

I point this out not because Bright Matthews did — she never mentioned gender or race when I spoke with her.

I point this out because it’s real.

The state legislature is an old boys club. The political rules there, both written and unwritten, were made by and for the men in power to keep their power, exert their power and trade on their power.

And it appears Bright Matthews was merely using their well-worn playbook.

Women and people of color should always fight hard for equitable representation in leadership.

Without that push, there is no progress.

As I said, though, when you come at the old boys club, you better not miss.

Bright Matthews did what’s been done many times before by many a legislator.

But she did it in an utterly reckless way, and she did it at the expense of voter accessibility.

I’d call that more than a miss.

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Columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in political science and writes about a wide range of topics, including Bravo’s “Southern Charm.” She has lived in the Lowcountry for 15 years, but still feels like a fraud when she accidentally says “y’all.”