(WSPA) – The November election will likely be a low-turnout affair, but the stakes are still high for the women and men who run the election itself. In fact, many of them are relatively new to the job because in the last two years, a combination of stress, abuse, and harassment have driven many county officials out.
Three years ago, Dr. Amy Sams started her new career almost entirely by accident.
It was 2020, just weeks before the June primaries, when the Pickens County election director and the county’s entire election board resigned.
Sams was a librarian at the time, and with libraries closed by the pandemic, she changed jobs to fill an urgent need.
“At the time that it was happening, it was really, truly, just move as fast as you can, because we didn’t have time to stop and really think,” Sams said.
Sams’ recent transition put her in good company.
According to the South Carolina State Election Commission’s annual report, more than half of all county election directors resigned or retired since January 2021, including five in the Upstate.
The SEC blames “ongoing harassment, threats, and stress,” specifically in the 2022 primary finding “targeted harassment and intimidation of poll workers.”
“People have become physically threatening to staff, to directors and, quite frankly, who wants to endure that,” Sams said.
Joe Dill, the vice-chairman of the Greenville County Republican Party and a longtime elected official in Greenville County, lost his 2022 primary.
At the time, he claimed fraud and, while he has never made public threats against any election official, he has not backed down.
“I still do not believe it was fair, and that all the ballots got counted, and that all the machines worked properly,” Dill said.
Election directors said that lack of trust and fear of fraud is the primary factor driving the harassment of employees.
Like Dill, many voters felt the computerized touchscreens are somehow less accurate or easier to manipulate and that undermines their trust in the vote and the count.
“I don’t believe the public will ever trust the machine,” Dill said. “What should happen is that if you don’t trust it, you find something that you would trust…nobody can manipulate the hole that you punch.”
Of course, punch cards are imperfect. It was paper ballots and so-called “hanging chads” that pushed a presidential election all the way to the Supreme Court in 2000. That’s how South Carolina got touch screens in the first place.
Really, they’re glorified printers, that are NEVER connected to the internet. The touch screens produce a hard copy, verifiable record of every vote that is counted electronically for speed but can be double checked by hand.
“We do two major audits. One is a sample audit where we go in and we don’t choose the precincts. Where we do them, this is chosen at random from the SEC. They send us election day, they send us the precincts that we hand count,” said Greenville County election director Conway Belangia.
Belangia is one of the state’s longest-serving and most experienced election directors. He’s had almost 40 years on the job, the last 31 serving in Greenville County.
“I take a lot of pride in what we do. Most election directors still take a lot of pride and some people still want to throw rotten tomatoes and things at us just because we are conducting the election,” Belangia said.
Both Belangia and Sams said they encourage anyone with concerns about the count to call, ask questions or sign up to work the polls. In fact, that approach has already worked with a member of Joe Dill’s family.
“My wife works in a poll and she says well it’s good. She said the people that work there, they make sure everything is good, that it turns out good but the public out here doesn’t have confidence in it,” Dill said.