COLUMN: Someone misread my notes
For this, we waited three weeks?
Someone misread my notes; I can’t say who.
The dog ate my homework; I can’t say which dog. Or which homework.
Let me state up front that I think we have become far too impatient. We want immediate answers even to the most complex of questions. We want action before we even have answers.
Critics were calling for Lillian McBride’s head as head of the Richland County elections office even while the votes were still being cast. Just like they were calling for the head of Revenue Director Jim Etter – and his boss, Gov. Nikki Haley – the day the governor told us about the computer breach that stole our most sensitive financial information.
Yet in neither case did we know the full extent of the problem, or its causes, and in neither case was there any urgent need to get the person in charge out of charge immediately. In fact, a good argument can be made that when you have such monumental failures, you need the people who oversaw those failures to stick around until you get some answers.
It’s understandable that McBride didn’t have complete answers at Monday’s fact-finding hearing before the Richland County legislative delegation. Her office was tied up for nearly two weeks just trying to count the ballots. It was paralyzed another week because that week included Thanksgiving and, well, surely we can’t expect anyone to get anything done during Thanksgiving week. The commission wants to do a thorough investigation before it reaches any conclusions. And yes, people could lose their jobs over this, so everyone is being extra careful to deflect blame from themselves and to avoid doing anything that gets them sued over someone else’s dismissal.
What makes McBride’s explanation so completely unacceptable is not that it was incomplete. What makes it completely unacceptable is that we waited three weeks to hear it. “Someone misunderstood my instructions” is an explanation she should have been able to give us the day after the election; certainly by week’s end. Instead, apparently acting on the advice of her protector, Sen. Darrell Jackson, she clammed up. Refused to give us a clue as to how her office so throughly botched the election.
With each day’s delay, the bar rose for how thorough the explanation needed to be. An answer that would have been perfectly sufficient in the immediate aftermath of the election was wholly insufficient three weeks hence. Three weeks hence, “somebody misunderstood my instructions” needs to be accompanied by an explanation of what has become of that somebody – and “still being paid by the taxpayers to do the same incompetent job” probably isn’t good enough.
Apparently, McBride didn’t even give her bosses a clue as to what happened before Monday’s hearing. That would be her actual bosses – the members of the county election commission – as opposed to the legislators who continue to insist, without a scintilla of authority and now with an attorney general’s opinion that walks them step by step through what their embarrassingly ill-written law actually says, that she works for them.
When Elections and Voter Registration Chairwoman Liz Crum led off Monday’s presentation with the document that McBride later would blame for the whole mess, she explained that a mysterious column of numbers hand-written in red ink apparently showed how many voting machines were delivered to each precinct.
She said she had no idea about the derivation of those numbers, which were much lower than the ones in another column that showed how many machines the law required.
Only when McBride testified did Crum and the rest of us hear that the red numbers showed how many activation devices she wanted sent to each precinct, but that an employee mistook them for the number of voting machines, and disregarded the higher, correct numbers for voting machines.
What makes McBride’s explanation completely unacceptable is that her other comments make it ... un-credible. On the one hand, she says she approved a perfectly good plan that fulfilled the requirements of the law, but a subordinate botched its execution. On the other hand, she continues to blame former Elections Director Mike Cinnamon for not leaving behind information she needed in order to comply with the law.
Set aside the fact that the information was readily available from the State Election Commission, and consider this question: If she needed data that she implies Cinnamon destroyed in order to determine how many machines should go to each precinct, where did the correct numbers on the misread spreadsheet come from?
The answers are mutually exclusive. Either she had the correct information and someone misread it, or else her predecessor sabotaged her by destroying the correct information, and the story about her correct instructions being misread is a fabrication.
Or maybe she’s just trying to divert attention and blame to her predecessor.
Sort of like what happened when Rep. James Smith started asking questions about the delegation’s unmet directive last year that Cinnamon be kept on as an advisor after the new office was created. As Crum tried to explain why that hadn’t happened, Jackson, the delegation chairman, noted that “there were executive-session matters we might not want to come out that relates to Mr. Cinnamon.”
And he didn’t bring them out. At least not directly. But boy did he insinuate. He spoke of “very sensitive issues” and “perhaps significant issues,” which he would be happy to discuss with his fellow legislators, in private.
The legislative delegation that has absolutely no statutory authority over McBride, but whose chairman might very well control her fate nonetheless, is scheduled to meet again next week. Perhaps then we will get some answers befitting a four-week wait. Or, at the very least, perhaps we won’t hear any more efforts to impugn by innuendo the person who did not botch the election.
Cindi Ross Scoppe is an associate editor with The State newspaper in Columbia.