Last Minute Call to the Statehouse

By Lucy Twinkle

It’s Tuesday at 1:15 pm and I have just learned that the House Subcommittee on Business Commerce & Administration will be having a hearing at 4 pm on the regulations put forth by the State Election Commission (SEC). Only one problem. I am 2 hours away. But you know what…I’m going!

So, I left at 1:45 pm and tore up to Columbia (obeying speed limits…of course). After parking, and walking to the Blatt Building, I arrived 2 minutes before 4 pm. Just in time to get my name on the “I want to speak” Public Comments sheet. Can’t cut it closer than that. Here’s what happened – a summary:

There were two regulations (REGs) specifically that concerned me: 1) Doc 5204 about election equipment and 2) Doc 5224 about audits.

5204 states that “Before any product considered by an electoral board for use in conducting elections or voting registration can be purchased, it must be approved for use by the Executive Director. “The Executive Director will have SOLE DISCRETION to approve or disapprove use of the product.”

Um…at first glance that would be a “no.” Why should the authority to purchase any kind of election equipment be left to the discretion of one person, regardless of who that person might be? SEC Executive Director Howie Knapp explained that he needed to have the authority to ensure that all hardware and software in county election offices, such as printers, would be consistent and compatible. The only problem with this explanation is that the regulation is written so broadly as to allow the Executive Director to approve any and all election equipment; that it the regulation wasn’t specific in terms of the types of equipment that the Exec. Dir. Could approve. I spoke against this REG – and am happy to report that while it was approved to move out of subcommittee to be considered by the Full Committee, it was only done so on the condition that it be revised to say that such approval would involve the entire SEC Board. I see that as a win!

5224 – Confidentiality of Audit Records. This REG states that “All records and workpapers of the SEC’s audit division, except the final report, are confidential and not subject to public disclosure.”

That’s another “no.” The public has the right to be able to review the documents and data that led to the issuance of the final report. One legislator stated that in his legal opinion, this REG would run counter to our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws. He moved to have the Subcommittee disapprove the regulation. This required a second, which didn’t happen. There was more discussion. Another attempt to disapprove, but no second. More discussion. I spoke about the importance of FOIA laws and used the grocery receipt analogy. It’s not good enough to see the final total without being able to see the individual items that contributed to the total.

Mr. Knapp urged its passing by saying that other governmental agencies had the right to keep data involving investigations private. Another woman in public comment stated that this could be accomplished by simply writing WITNESS 1 or WHISTLEBLOWER 2. Finally, it was decided that if there was a desire to keep such information from the public, it would have to be done statutorily and the Committee asked Mr. Knapp to withdraw his regulation, which he did. Another win!!

Even with two wins, I have concerns. The first is that there seems to be a desire to centralize the control of our state elections in the hands of unelected officials in the State Election Commission and away from the counties. It seemed as if the main concern of the legislators was to give the Executive Director more authority to reign in “rogue counties.” I tried to explain that centralization has the effect of moving the decision-making processes away from the counties and the people and that it could destroy the ability of counties to make decisions that would be appropriate for their unique counties. For example, we see counties all across the United States putting a pause on the election machines and moving to experimenting with paper ballots. A move towards centralization would preclude that ability.

Another concern was the very loose language of these regulations. While Mr. Knapp explained his motive in putting forth these regulations, he won’t be there forever. And I fear that the language is so vague and open-ended that it could be misappropriated and possibly invite abuse of the authority conveyed on the Executive Director and used for nefarious purposes. I would have liked the language to be more specific and defined, and not open to interpretation.

The meeting was over at 7 pm.

PS. For those of you who want to know more…other issues were addressed.

5192 – Definitions: one of the issues was the definition of a (poll) observer and the fact that observers would be “permitted at the discretion of the poll clerk.” Mr. Knapp explained that this is federal law – and that if a poll clerk wanted to exclude the President, he/she could. Mr. Knapp explained that this REG was needed to establish definitions. It was approved to go to Committee.

5193 – Voter rolls: this states that “The Executive Director may determine a reasonable price for voter registration lists by considering the following factors:” – and then sets up some criteria for setting the price, one of which is “recouping the costs associated with running the Sale of Lists program.” We are currently charged $2,500 for each requested list. One legislator explained that this price can be onerous for individuals who would need to request voter rolls several times in an election year. I stated that this information should be provided to the citizens of the state for free, that we pay taxes and this information belongs to us. Mr. Knapp acknowledged that some states give their voter rolls for free, some like North Carolina post the rolls on their website, and others charge much more. He stated that he collects about $100,000 from the sale of the rolls when the actual cost is closer to $1.2M. One legislator stated that he liked the regulation because it defined criteria for setting the price of voter rolls; I disagreed and stated that I saw it as an expansion of his powers by putting in the regulation that the intent of the fee was to cover expenses of maintaining voter rolls. This REG passed and will go to Committee.

5194 – Ballot Standards Document – this would provide for standardization of ballot formats. The argument made by Mr. Knapp was that this was necessary in response to election officials who insisted on putting their name on the ballot instead of the Executive Director. Actually, the effect of this regulation would be to limit the ability of individual counties to create their own ballot design, including the use of paper ballots. This REG passed and will go to committee.

5195 – Protest Hearings – sets up criteria for protest hearings in county Boards of Canvassers and Executive Committees. Approved to go to Full Committee.

5196 – Oaths – this sets forth the requirements for different types of election-related oaths. Approved and sent to Full Committee.

5197 – County Reports – this REG required that the counties report any lawsuits filed against them to the SEC within 30 days. The legislators changed that to within 24 Business hours – and approved it to go to Full Committee.

5198 – Absentee Ballot Drop boxes – “A county board of voter registration and elections may not utilize absentee ballot drop boxes for receiving or collecting completed absentee ballots.” This was approved to go to Committee.

5199 – Candidate nicknames – “The final decision on whether a candidate authorized by law to appear on a ballot in a general, special or primary election in this State for any office may use their nickname or derivative name to appear on a ballot is at the discretion of the Executive Director.” Mr. Knapp explained that this REG is necessary because we see candidates listed on ballots with names like Joe “Smokey Barbecue” Jones and we want to prevent that. I spoke and asked the Mr. Knapp if he would disallow Nikki Haley to use her name and require her to use her real birthname “Nimrata.” I said that this could be a form of election interference. Once again, this REG opens the door to future possible abuse if a future Executive Director interprets this REG differently from Mr. Knapp. Approved and sent to Committee.

5201 – requires counties to develop Emergency Procedure Plans for polling places during elections. According to Mr. Knapp, these procedures are not currently in place. This REG was approved to move to Full Committee.

5202 – Candidate withdrawals – establishes what to do in case of a candidate withdrawal. Approved to go to full committee.

5203 – Electronic petitions – this has to do with gathering petitions for nonpartisan candidates. Approved and sent to Full Committee.

5205 – Nonpartisan and Petition Candidate Information Reports – outlines the requirements for nonpartisan candidate statements. Approved and sent to Full Committee.

5225 – Storage and retention requirements for election records and equipment. Sets forth standards for storing important election data. Approved and sent to Committee.