COLUMBIA — Ballots and voting machines in a contested South Carolina legislative race will be guarded by state police until a hearing can be held next week on alleged voting irregularities in Richland County, a judge ordered Thursday.
The request came from the South Carolina Democratic Party, which wants a recount of votes in House District 75, a seat left open by a retiring GOP lawmaker. Richland County’s preliminary tally shows Republican Kirkman Finlay as the race’s unofficial winner by a narrow margin – less than 300 votes. Democrat Joe McCulloch is challenging those results.
Based on results provided by election officials, The Associated Press called the race on Election Day for McCulloch. The AP withdrew that call after election officials changed vote tallies to show Finlay in the lead and has not declared a winner.
A cascade of Election Day problems delayed the county’s unofficial results until late Wednesday. Officials cited multiple problems, including long lines of voters, too few voting machines and broken counting scanners. Some voters reportedly waited up to six hours.
State Democrats addressed those issues in their request for a temporary restraining order. Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning approved it and set a hearing for Nov. 13. County officials are set to begin certifying election results Friday.
Election officials “have demonstrated the threat of immediate and irreparable injury in the form of the certification of election results that have been marred by unlawful election procedures and vote tabulation procedures,” Manning wrote in his order. “The public is entitled to an independent and thorough review of these procedures and tabulations.”
State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire has said Richland County, home to the state capital, was the only one of the state’s 46 counties in the state that reported serious problems. Voter turnout was heavy across the state but didn’t set a record. About 1,920,000 votes were cast for president in South Carolina.
About 400,000 South Carolinians voted absentee, surpassing the previous high set in 2008 by roughly 60,000 voters, Whitmire said.
County officials have not explained how the problems occurred. Poll managers blamed failed voting machines and heavy turnout for the backups. But Garry Baum, deputy director of the county election commission, said Wednesday he had no exact figures on how many of the county’s 1,000 election voting machines in its 124 precincts didn’t work.
On Thursday, Baum deferred comment to Richland County’s legislative delegation. A spokeswoman for the delegation members did not comment on the request.
State law requires that precincts have one voting machine per 250 registered voters, Democrats said, but Richland County officials didn’t comply with that requirement or adequately fix machines that broke down on Election Day.
As a result of the delays, Democrats argued, some voters were still waiting in line as late as 10 p.m. Tuesday. County elections officials also didn’t “close out” machines, or properly transfer machine data to a cartridge that is used to make a printout of a precinct’s votes, Democrats said. As a result, vote counts were delayed until Wednesday, with results for four precincts in particular not tallied until late into the afternoon.
Manning’s hearing is set for 10 a.m. next Tuesday. An hour later, Richland County lawmakers are set to meet and discuss election-related issues, delegation spokeswoman Kim Janha said.
State Republicans have also called for an investigation into the problems, which party chairman Chad Connelly called a “debacle.”
“Voters of every political stripe deserve better from their government,” Connelly said in a statement.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP