COLUMBIA — South Carolina residents could be forgiven in 2012 for wondering how their institutions would fail them next.
Hundreds of candidates were thrown off the ballot for filing paperwork at the wrong place. Thousands of voters stood in line for four hours or more to cast ballots because an elections director in Richland County decided she needed fewer voting machines during a presidential election. And millions of taxpayers had their Social Security numbers stolen by a hacker.
In each case, people screamed, “What happened?” And in each case, those responsible struggled to give adequate answers.
More than a month after Gov. Nikki Haley announced a hacker accessed millions of South Carolina tax returns online, getting Social Security numbers and other information that were not encrypted, Democratic state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis of Charleston had a complaint that could have come out of almost any resident’s mouth about a number of problems in 2012.
“Instead of answers and solutions, we have received a steady stream of misinformation, constantly changing stories and little to no transparency,” Stavrinakis said.
The first set of people let down were candidates for the June primary. Just 41 days before voters went to the polls, the state Supreme Court ruled that officials had to strictly enforce a new law about where candidates file paperwork about their income, assets and any lobbyists in the immediate family. Democrats and Republicans told their candidates they could either file the paperwork online or hand in a paper copy when they filed as a candidate. The justices interpreted the law as saying candidates needed to file both ways.
“Yes, we were asleep at the wheel. There’s no question about it,” state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian told the state Supreme Court when the justices heard the case in May. “We should have required every candidate to file a statement of economic interest and bring a copy with their filing. My only defense to that is the Legislature created this online filing and there was a big promotion about it and most of our county officials felt you filed online and that wasn’t something we needed to do.”
The law didn’t affect people already in office who already filed paperwork. Justice Costa Pleicones called the law the “Incumbent Candidate Private Relief Bill,” and that name proved true. More than 200 challengers were thrown off the ballot, some after already spending thousands of dollars on their campaigns. A number of incumbents suddenly found themselves in uncontested primaries. Dozens of kicked-off candidates returned for the general election as petition candidates. But they struggled without party affiliation. Almost 49 percent of voters voted a straight party ticket in 2012. The only petition candidate to defeat a major party incumbent was Katrina Shealey, who beat Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts in Lexington County.
Then there was the mess on Election Day in Richland County. Long lines were reported across the county, with some people waiting as long as five hours. The final vote was cast after midnight. For weeks, residents and Richland County voters demanded answers from county Elections and Voter Registration Director Lillian McBride. She finally apologized but gave few answers beyond a confusing printed spreadsheet with handwritten numbers added in red ink. Neither McBride nor anyone in her office has been fired or quit in the seven weeks following the election.
“You’re willing to apologize, but I haven’t seen any effort to hold you accountable or hold the delegation accountable,” said Democratic state Rep. Mia McLeod, whose suburban Columbia district saw some of the longest waits to vote.
But no issue of accountability hit South Carolina harder than the hacking of tax returns at the Department of Revenue. A report from private information security company Mandiant determined the incident started Aug. 13 when a hacker sent an email to a Department of Revenue staffer, who clicked on a link and allowed the hacker into the agency’s computer system. The hacker accessed the agency’s computer system seven times, obtaining more passwords and looking around.
A month after sending the initial email, the hacker got into a database of income tax returns filed electronically since 1998 and downloaded them. The database contained unencrypted bank account numbers and Social Security numbers of almost 4 million adults and their nearly 2 million dependents, as well as 700,000 businesses. It was nearly another month before the security breach was discovered, according to the report.
Gov. Nikki Haley initially responded with anger, saying she told law enforcement: “I want this person slammed against the wall.” She also insisted “this was no simple breach,” insisting that the hacking was hard if not impossible to prevent and that no one in the Revenue Department should lose their jobs.
The Mandiant report indicated the hacking wasn’t all that sophisticated. The head of the Department of Revenue, Jim Etter, is resigning at the end of the year, although Haley said she still thinks he did a good job. And by the time the Mandiant report came out, the governor’s tone had changed.
“Could South Carolina have done a better job? Absolutely, or we would not be standing here,” Haley said at a news conference releasing the report.