COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s Supreme Court has ordered state police to return ballots and voting machines to Richland County officials so that they can be tallied, ruling on Tuesday that a lower court didn’t have jurisdiction to order a recount.

The justices also gave county officials until noon Friday to canvass the votes and give the results to state authorities, who will certify them later that day. Any disputes with election results must be filed by Nov. 21.

The late afternoon order came a week after a cascading Election Day disaster in Richland County that included hours-long voting lines and broken machines, with many not actually voting until well after polls had closed, and others giving up their quest altogether. State election officials have said Richland was the only one of the state’s 46 counties that reported serious problems.

County officials have not explained how the problems occurred, and state legislators from the area have said they want to hold a hearing over the issues. State GOP Chairman Chad Connelly had said he plans to form a task force to see what happened.

Democrats originally asked for a recount in House District 75, but that request was expanded countywide several hours later. Richland County’s preliminary tally showed Republican Kirkman Finlay as the race’s unofficial winner by a narrow margin – less than 300 votes – over Democrat Joe McCulloch. 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.

At Democrats’ request, Circuit Judge Casey Manning last week ordered all Richland County ballots be held by the State Law Enforcement Division, who would observe as votes were counted. But that effort was put on hold after state Republicans took their objections to the state Supreme Court, arguing in court papers that the lower court judge didn’t have the authority to order the recount.

Earlier Tuesday, state Democrats dropped that recount request, saying they had been reassured by county officials that they could accurately count the votes without court intervention. But since the dispute over Richland County ballots had also reached the state’s highest court, counting couldn’t resume without a decision from that court, as well.

In their own filing to the state’s highest court, Republicans said they would agree to drop the ballot dispute, so long as the court ruled that “there is no legal basis” for a recount of the House District 75 ballots. The justices did note that their order wouldn’t prevent county commissioners from ordering a recount if they determined one was required.

One candidate who lost a bid for Richland County council has called for new elections to be held, accusing county officials of intentionally not putting out enough voting machines on Election Day. According to state law, the county agency that runs that area’s elections should provide at least one voting machine for each 250 registered voters in that precinct. Richland County officials have said they sent out less than 800 machines for Richland County’s 244,721 registered voters, which averages to about one machine per 305 voters. The county left more than 100 machines behind in case they needed to be dispatched because of problems.


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