Audit ordered for Richland County elections office

Richland County’s Voter Registration and Elections office got part of its wish for more money to run this year’s elections Tuesday, but with an important stipulation.

The Voter Registration and Elections office will receive more than $229,000 to pay for licensing and equipment needed to run the June presidential primaries and the November general election. In return, the office will undergo an audit of its operations and finances.

The County Council approved the arrangement on a 6-4 vote, with council members Seth Rose, Bill Malinowski, Gregory Pearce and Torrey Rush casting the opposing votes.

The funds include $106,739.10 to cover the department’s costs for batteries, phones, printers and signage. Another $153,203 will cover a recurring maintenance and license fee required by the state.

The amount excludes a request by the Voter Registration and Elections office to receive more than $855,000 in reimbursements from local municipalities and the state for previously held elections.

The County Council requested the audit after several members questioned the accounting practices of Elections Director Samuel Selph.

Selph defended how he has handled the department’s finances.

“When you have an election it costs. What we asked for is actually needed,” he said. “I don’t like managing a department where at the end of the fiscal year we’re in the red. Give us the required amount of money we need to run this agency.”

Selph contended that his office finishes each year in a budget shortfall because it does not directly receive reimbursement payments for running the elections of local municipalities in addition to money from the State Elections Commission.

The money goes into the county’s general fund budget, but Selph and some commissioners on the Voter Registration and Elections Board said that hurts the department’s bottom line.

“We have added many more voters, many more precincts. Machines are much more antiquated needing more maintenance,” said Voter Registration and Elections Board Chairwoman Marjorie Johnson.

Johnson said she came to Tuesday night’s meeting to clear up the misconception that the Voter Registration and Elections office was making an emergency request. The office originally asked for $3 million during last year’s county budget process, but only got $1.2 million. Johnson said they had come back to request the additional dollars.

“We are still trying to address our original submittal, which was a year ago,” she said. “It was not a sudden thing.”

But County Councilman Gregory Pearce said the numbers did not add up.

Pearce, who voted against the funding request, said Richland County’s agency should be able to provide services to voters with the state-mandated $1.2 million it receives annually. Greenville, he said, is able to run its elections with just under $1 million, though it has more registered voters.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand how a county as large as Greenville can operate an election efficiently with more voters and less money,” Pearce said.

Selph said Greenville has a separate revolving account in which election reimbursements are placed and that election expenses, such as poll worker wages, are paid out of that account.

County Administrator Tony McDonald said the audit could take two to three months to complete and could cost about $20,000.

Selph said he welcomes the audit.

“We have nothing to hide. Let them come,” he said. “My numbers are factual. That’s what we need to operate that office. That’s what we need to run the elections that we are mandated to run.”

The Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Board meets today at 4 p.m. in the County Council chambers at 2020 Hampton Street.