Letter, officials detail election office situation

By Greg Oliver

Courtesy The Journal

PICKENS — With the June primary just two months away, dependent on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pickens County is trying to replace its elections director and election commission.

Longtime director Rodney Allen submitted his resignation, effective March 31, followed by the remaining five members of the county’s board of registrations and elections — Kathleen Hare, Gretchen Campbell, Geneva Robinson, Sheree Chapman and Gavin Wilson. Two other longtime board members — June Bowers and Herb Thompson — submitted their resignations in February and mid-March, respectively.

State Rep. Davey Hiott of Pickens and state Sen. Rex Rice of Easley said Thursday that a letter was being sent to Gov. Henry McMaster that day containing the names of seven candidates for immediate appointment. No other information on those candidates was available at press time.

“We’ve had some problems in the past with some of the elections and made some suggestions to the board,” Hiott said. “I suppose they chose not to abide by the requests.”

In their resignation letter to the governor, the five board members said the past year “has been an escalation of interference by said parties.” They said Hiott and Rice arrived at the election office on Feb. 29, the day of the Democratic presidential primary, and “herded the board into a conference room even after a board member stated that we could not meet like that.” The letter said Rice “stated he would talk and we would listen” and suggested that either the board fire Allen “or we will, referencing the governor’s involvement would be used if needed.”

The letter said such action was in direct interference of the S.C. Code of Election laws, as well as a violation of the South Carolina Open Meeting Act. The board said the meeting taking place at the county building where the board “was extremely busy getting ballots totaled and reported properly” was “another act of interference with the voting process.”

The letter also alleged interim county administrator Ken Roper had county personnel remove Allen from his office on March 6, saying “the county needed that space,” but claimed that no one had moved into the office as of March 25. Commissioners said that gave Allen no space to work in, but added that staff “rearranged the office to give Mr. Allen desk space.” County employees then loaded up election equipment and said they were moving it to a storage cage in the basement “because that is what they were told to do.”

Problems cited

The commission members said neither “Mr. Allen nor anyone on his staff had been given a key to this storage cage, thus not allowing them to begin preparing for the June 2020 primaries.” Members also claimed the desire for “control” of the elections office “has led to serious dysfunction in our county.” The commission referenced a letter received March 2 in which the delegation said “it believes that this is the best group of individuals that has ever served on the elections board and we, the delegation, appreciate everything that you have done.”

Thompson, who had served on the commission since 2007, declined comment except to say he turned in his resignation nearly two weeks earlier.

“That was my decision,” Thompson said. “I’ve been thinking about it.”

Rice said issues in previous elections led to the decision to seek a change in leadership.

“The most recent was the Democratic primary, when some of the polling places were not arranged until the last minute, and some of the workers, when they came to turn in their stuff, had to wait outside,” Rice said. “We also had a school board election that had to be redone because of problems with the election board.”

That election was in November 2018, when the board found that inappropriate ballots were used in the District 7 school board election, requiring a new election. Evidence was presented that 137 voters eligible to vote in the race were given paper failsafe ballots that didn’t list the school board race.

Although Phillip Healy won the initial election by 20 votes, Alice Vander Linden won the rescheduled election.

“Davey and I asked the board to reconsider the person in charge,” Rice said. “He’s a good (information technology) guy, but I think he was in over his head. We sent a letter asking them to evaluate the situation, and with this most recent election (the Feb. 29 Democratic primary), they had some more issues, and we asked them again.

“I think the board got frustrated with us asking them, and we got frustrated having to keep asking them.”

Replacement process begun

Roper said Thursday that while the local delegation is responsible for getting board appointment recommendations to the governor, he had already started the process of advertising for the new director and staff positions.

“We posted all three jobs on our county website and are receiving applications,” Roper said. “In the interim, we have two staff members from the library filling in and an additional person with specific elections expertise coming on board Friday.”

Hiott said the election director position will be advertised for 30 days.

“We hope we get some good candidates,” Hiott said. “We’re hoping that individual will have some experience and be ready to go.”

Rice said that while the timing is unfortunate, he hopes “that will create a moment of opportunity to improve the way our elections are run.” The state senator added that neither he nor Hiott were surprised by the mass resignations.

“Davey and I had talked about this several times and had prepared ourselves for an event like this,” Rice said.