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Election 2012: County will pay the bill for petition candidates

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

With more than 20,000 signatures to verify before petition candidates in Georgetown County can be certified, staff at the county’s Office of Voter Registration and Elections hasn’t had time for much else.

The office had to hire seven temporary employees to help out the three regular staff members, and Donna Mahn, the office director, said she expects a minimum of 600 hours will go into the verification process. The total cost is estimated at around $7,000.

“We’ve done petitions before. You get them every so often, but never anything like this,” Mahn said. “We couldn’t possibly have done it with just the three of us.”

Eight people petitioned to be on the November ballot this year after a S.C. Supreme Court ruling saw candidates around the state disqualified for not properly filing statements of economic interest. Only one of the eight, Kathy Harrelson, who wants to run for auditor, wasn’t affected by the ruling. She decided to run after filing closed, as Auditor Linda Mock didn’t announce plans not to run for re-election until the last minute.

Harrelson and four others are petitioning for countywide seats, so each needed signatures from about 2,000 registered voters. Two candidates for County Council District 5, which covers Andrews, had to collect about 240 signatures each.

Tom Winslow, a lawyer running against incumbent Democrat Carl Anderson for House District 103, had to collect the most signatures: 11,010.

One by one, every signature submitted has to be checked to ensure it belongs to a living registered voter. While registration information is available on computer, signatures on registration documents have not been converted to a digital format. The staff must go to the paper files contained in one of seven file cabinets. The names on the petitions are checked first against the computer lists then color coded alphabetically according to which file cabinet contains their original registration form.

The staff then pulls each form to match against the signature on the petition.

Some of the names are barely legible and information that would help identify the voter, such as birth dates and registration numbers, were frequently left off when petitions were signed.

“I’m pretty good at deciphering and even I can’t make some of them out,” Mahn said.

Mahn and her staff have been at work on the task since July 16. Several candidates have already had all their signatures verified, including Winslow and the two County Council candidates, Bubba Grimes and Ben Dunn. They will take on incumbent Republican Austin Beard.

“The rest are coming along,” Mahn said. “I don’t think anybody is really in danger of not making it.

“If we push really hard, we could be done by Friday,” she said. The deadline is Aug. 15.

The job won’t end there. Once the signatures are verified, Mahn will have to tally the number of signatures that were disallowed and issue receipts containing the information to each candidate.

After that she and her staff can get back to what they’d normally be doing at this time during a major election year.

“It never stops,” Mahn said.

The office is still keeping up with new voter registrations and updates to voter information. It also started accepting filings for the nonpartisan county school board election on Wednesday. But “most of everything had to be kind of put to the side while we deal with this,” Mahn said.

Once petition candidates have all been certified, she can turn her focus back to getting ready to train poll workers and preparing for the election.

She anticipates a huge turnout in November and a larger than usual number of absentee voters.

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