Feds issued warning about Richland Co. elections warehouse in 2021; vulnerabilities remain

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Published: Nov. 2, 2022 at 6:53 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - WIS has obtained a June 2021 memo from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warning state and Richland County election leadership about the county’s warehouse security vulnerabilities, including lighting, fencing, and cameras.

The memo came after a January 2019 letter from the South Carolina State Election Commission outlining DHS recommendations, including moving voting equipment to a more secure location.

An unannounced WIS visit to the property in October found an unlocked gate and an open front door.

WIS investigates the security at Richland County's warehouse
WIS investigates the security at Richland County's warehouse(Chris Joseph)

WIS has no evidence of any break-ins at the warehouse and the South Carolina State Election Commission reported the vulnerabilities have not caused any issues with Richland County elections.

Richland County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Maj. Maria Yturria told WIS the department has no incident reports for any issues at the warehouse’s address.

Leaders with the Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Office and county administration told WIS there have been improvements to the physical condition of the facility.

However, Interim Voter Registration and Elections Office Director Terry Graham tells WIS the most pressing federally outlined security concerns from the 2021 memo have not been addressed.

Both Graham and Richland County Administrator Leonardo Brown are eyeing potential new locations for the office and its equipment.

The South Carolina State Election Commission tells WIS the DHS reviews are part of a partnership between the agency and DHS to strengthen election infrastructure. All 46 counties are subject to the reviews.

Securing funding and action on the warehouse requires a partnership between multiple bodies and their separate leadership.

Richland County lawmakers nominate members of the elections board, who are then appointed to their positions by the governor. Graham answers to that board.

The elections office is largely reliant on Richland County for funding. The county budget is handled by Brown with the approval of the Richland County Council. The warehouse is owned by Richland County.

Graham and Brown tell WIS they cooperate to get plans approved by their different leadership teams.

The Richland County Legislative Delegation (comprised of the county’s state lawmakers) can also provide funding to assist the office through state legislation.

However, that would require the approval of lawmakers across the state and is subject to the governor’s veto.

The DHS documents

WIS obtained a January 16, 2019 letter from the South Carolina State Election Commission to former Richland County Director of Voter Registration and Elections Rokey Suleman.

The letter is brief in detail, but outlined the DHS recommendation to relocate election supplies to a more “secure” location, and closer to the Richland County Voter Registration and Elections office.

No such move was made. Suleman resigned in February 2019 after his office’s failure to count more than 1,000 votes.

Graham’s LinkedIn shows he was with the elections office as Manager of Voter Services at the time. He took the reins as interim director in July 2019. He served as interim until the county hired Alexandria Stephens as director.

Attempts to contact Stephens for this story were unsuccessful. She resigned in August 2022 and Graham returned to the role of interim director.

The January 2019 letter was before county administrator Leonardo Brown’s tenure at Richland County (he began his duties in July 2019).

By June 2021, Brown was county administrator and Graham was deputy director at the elections office.

That month, DHS filed its security report on the county’s facilities. It listed a series of vulnerabilities, including the following:

  • The warehouse is remote, and backup power generation should be considered.
  • The peephole needs to be improved or replaced with a camera
  • More cameras should be installed to monitor the property
  • Panic alarms should be installed in several locations
  • Exterior lighting in some areas is “completely inadequate”

The report did commend the facility on two counts. The “primary employee assigned to the facility is well versed in security protocols and procedures” and “a key control system is in place and is regularly reviewed.”

Similarly, a June 10 memo addressed the security of the public-facing elections office.

The DHS commended the office for several items. They included:

  • Regular law enforcement presence
  • The checking of packages in the mailroom prior to distribution
  • The ability to move the office to another location if needed
  • Adequate lighting and camera coverage
  • Adequate doors, locks, and separation from the public.

It identified multiple vulnerabilities, including:

  • A lack of an emergency plan
  • Camera shortcomings in some areas
  • A faulty alarm system at the time of the visit

WIS is not publishing the documents and leaving some details of the vulnerabilities out to protect the integrity of the facilities.

Response from Richland County leadership

WIS obtained emails from former Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Director Alexandria Stephens asking a state election commission official for a copy of the DHS report in October 2021.

A February 1, 2022 email from Stephens to a state elections commission official states she didn’t recall receiving a copy. Stephens admits it may have been sent but overlooked.

An email from Stephens shows she received a copy the same day, and she forwarded it to County Administrator Leonardo Brown.

In an Oct. 24, 2022 interview with WIS, Graham said he first became aware of the DHS-identified vulnerabilities in August or September 2021, when he was deputy director of the elections office.

A May 23, 2022 email from Stephens to Richland County Board of Voter Registration and Elections Chair Anjanette President how she and then-Deputy Director Terry Graham met with Brown to address the report when it was received.

She wrote she was advised to check with the state election commission about what assistance could be provided.

On May 25, 2022, she wrote to President, she’s gone to county administration several times to seek a new space and advised them about the conditions.

President wrote to Stephens on June 9, 2022, that she was in the process of meeting with Chair Overture Walker about the issue. Walker confirmed the meeting happened and he directed the elections office to Brown.

Attempts to contact Stephens for this story were unsuccessful.

On Oct. 21, 2022, Interim Voter Registration and Elections Director Terry Graham spoke with WIS reporter Nick Neville about the upcoming mid-term elections and the conditions of the warehouse.

Neville asked Graham what’s been done to strengthen the security of the warehouse.

“No more than what we already had. Of course, you can see the fence around the warehouse and we’ve got the alarm system, need more lighting,” he said.

He said he is working with Brown on finding a new location at least for the election equipment, if not for the entire office.

Neville asked Graham about the presence of potential security vulnerabilities.

“I don’t see any security vulnerability. My problem is, in the past the warehouse did leak and the county did get that problem resolved for us,” he said.

Richland County provided WIS with a series of work order documents showing maintenance work (including a leak fix) at the facility from April 2021 to September 2022.

He said the warehouse is in a low-traffic area and the equipment is safe.

On Oct. 24, WIS Chief Investigative Reporter Chris Joseph sat down with Graham and Brown to get more details on the warehouse.

Brown said the DHS memo represents recommendations for the “ideal scenario” but the warehouse is secure from potential bad actors.

“There are measures in place, you should not try to [break in], because it’s going to end in a bad result for you if you’re trying to do bad things,” he said.

WIS asked Graham how he proceeded with that information.

“Normally we have the conversation within the office and also with state election on how we can properly resolve some of those issues and some of those concerns and then at some point, we may have a conversation with the county administrator to see if there’s something that we can do to improve on some of those issues,” he said.

Graham named lighting as the most pressing issue and said no new lighting has been put in since the report. He said in recent years there have also been discussions about exterior cameras, but they were never installed.

He stressed there are interior cameras and motion detection.

WIS asked Graham why the cameras and lighting were not installed in the last year.

“That’s something I can’t speak upon, true I was the director deputy and as deputy my role, my role wasn’t to be so much familiar with the budget. My job was to make sure the day-to-day operations, as far as the staff they’re doing what they were supposed to do. As far as budgetary information, that’s something my former director, that’s what she handled,” he said.

He said he wasn’t sure why former Director of Voter Registration and Elections Alexandria Stephens did not act on the issues. Graham has been the acting director since August.

Attempts to contact Stephens for this story were unsuccessful. Graham said the issue is on his radar.

“Mr. Brown and I have had conversations, not only today, a few months ago we had conversations, what happened far as trying to get those things resolved, the payroll situation with the poll workers, that was an immediate problem that had to get resolved,” he said.

Stephens resigned after the Voter Registration and Elections Office faced scrutiny in August for delayed payment of poll workers.

Graham took over as interim director after delaying his resignation to ensure Richland County’s election office had a leader during the midterms.

Richland County Administrator Leonardo Brown said the county has been working to meet the requests of the election’s office. He said they began discussing the issue “a couple of months ago” and it will be addressed after the Nov. 8 election.

Graham said improvements after the election would make it easier on his team.

“My election division is out there, processing machines, testing machines, doing delivery, they have almost done. If you look at the warehouse today, you out there today, it’s almost empty because they’re already starting to deliver machines,” he said.

“Timing, in my opinion, is everything. Doing it now, it wouldn’t be good for us, the voter registration and election department because we don’t have the time to focus and we’re not even trying to focus on the warehouse. As long as the warehouse is being secured,” he said. He said his main concern is staff safety.

WIS visited the warehouse the day after the interview with Graham and Brown. WIS found the fence unlocked and the front door opened with staff inside.

WIS notified Graham, Brown, RCSD, and legislative delegation members.

Graham sent WIS a text saying:

“Our staff is there.”

The next day, WIS returned to the facility. The front door was closed, but the fence to the loading port was open.

Minutes after WIS’ arrival, the staff closed the loading door and locked the fence.

Graham said RCSD deputies have been out to the site as needed to help protect staff after hours.

Brown stressed work has been done to impact the “condition” of the facility.

Richland County’s fiscal year 2023 budget documents show the county has funded the elections office at a minimum of $1.83 million since at least the 2021 fiscal year.

Richland County Council Chairman Overture Walker declined an interview request, telling WIS he is aware Graham and Brown are discussing the situation.

Brown said fixes will have to come with the bureaucracy of two bodies- the county elections board and the county council along with their timetables.

“Mr. Graham and I, we just work together, but he also reports to a board, who then reports to the delegation. Whereas I report to the Richland County Council,” he said.

Neither Board of Voter Registration and Elections Chair Anjanette President nor Vice-Chari Yolanda Taylor agreed to a sit-down interview.

President did answer questions via text, telling WIS she was aware of the security documents regarding the warehouse.

When asked about what she’s done to address the vulnerabilities, she wrote:

“I don’t have any additional information to share with you on this subject other than what you have already obtained.”

She deferred to Brown and Graham.

Brown said there are ongoing discussions about finding a new location for the equipment warehouse and potentially the elections office as a whole.

“We’re really trying to set things up for the future. So there’s a decision that can be made to address elections going forward, facility-wise and staff-wise and there’s a decision that can be made now, and we want to do what’s best when we utilize taxpayer dollars to really address the future success for both the staff and the elections office,” he said.

He pointed to the county’s forthcoming public safety complex at Columbia Place Mall as a potential landing spot for the office and said the county is weighing accessibility by car or bus to the location.

Brown concluded by stressing the facility is secure and potential bad actors will be caught if they attempt to enter the building.

Response from the State Election Commission

WIS first inquired with the South Carolina Election Commission about the existence of the DHS memo in August.

South Carolina State Election Commission Deputy Executive Director Chris Whitmire sent WIS a statement denying WIS’ request for documents, citing security concerns.

The rest of the state statement reads in part:

I can tell you that since 2016, the SEC has worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to have various security reviews and assessments performed in an effort to maintain and strengthen the security of our critical election infrastructure. As part of that work, the SEC has coordinated physical security assessments of county offices and facilities. This was most recently done in 2021. Such reviews are statewide, and offices and facilities in all 46 counties are assessed to identify potential vulnerabilities and areas for improvement. The results of those assessments are shared with each county board of voter registration and elections to that they can take any actions that may be appropriate to address any vulnerabilities that may be identified in the assessment.

WIS followed up with Whitmire in October after it obtained the memo.

Whitmire said the commission became aware of the memo a “short time after that work was completed.”

“What we do is send to the county. It’s basically a tool for them to say hey, here are things you can do to improve your security at that location,” he said.

Whitmire said the commission does not oversee any county’s voting system storage facility or force them to move it.

“We can’t say you have to do this or force the county to spend money to do this,” he said.

Whitmire said the Richland County facility does meet “basic standards” of being climate controlled, locked, and allows limited access to the voting equipment. However, he said the agency would like to see improvements.

He said that needs to be dealt with at the county level.

“It would be the director, who would be responsible for going to their board, going to their county administration, requesting the funds necessary, and solving it as a county team,” he said.

He declined to compare Richland County’s facilities to that of other counties.

“Every county likely has some sort of recommendation coming out of such a review, nobody has perfect security, no one has perfect storage of their equipment, there are always things that you can do better,” he said.

Whitmire said warehouse security vulnerabilities have not been the source of any election issues for Richland County.

After the interview, WIS followed up with Whitmire on what resources the state has available to assist Richland County.

He sent a statement reading:

As county departments, the capital and operational costs of running the county offices have always been the sole responsibility of the respective county administrations. As a state agency, the SEC does not have the authority to subsidize county expenses.

However, we do provide reimbursements for standard statewide elections costs as well as election-related supplies. We provide security resources such as cyber and physical security assessments at no cost to the counties. The SEC also provided all counties with new voting equipment in 2019 at a total cost of $51 million.

Additionally, he told WIS:

The agency has spent nearly $100 million statewide on county voting equipment, county board members’ stipends, and election expense reimbursements since July 1, 2019.

State law requires county registration offices to receive a stipend based on population size.

South Carolina’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget slates $533,000 of the commission’s budget for “aid to counties.”

Whitmire said that money is for board member stipends, $375 per fiscal quarter paid through the county.

The August Richland County Legislative Delegation meeting

On Aug. 23, the Richland County Legislative Delegation called a special meeting to discuss the fall-out of Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Director Alexandria Stephens’s resignation.

Stephens, along with Graham (who was then deputy director) and a third top leader of the office resigned after issues arose with poll worker payment.

At the meeting, Graham expressed a willingness to stay on to assist with the November election and ultimately took the reins as interim director through Jan. 1.

Lawmakers questioned Graham and he explained the challenges the office is facing, including morale, poll worker recruitment, and the sudden loss of leadership.

House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland County) asked Graham what differences he sees in Richland County’s elections offices versus his experience working for Chester County’s elections office.

In front of state lawmakers, Graham’s response made a brief mention of the Department of Homeland Security while discussing the warehouse.

“Our needs is much greater. If I can go into, such as our office space. The warehouse that we house our machines, those things have been brought up with homeland security, ever since I’ve been here and those things fell on deaf ears,” he said.

Graham has worked at the office since 2018.

Later in the meeting, Rep. Kirkman Finlay (R-Richland County) again raised the issue of the warehouse, appearing to discuss its physical condition.

“Where y’all’s machines are stored is deplorable. I mean it’s deplorable not only because it’s dangerous to go work on them, the building is in severe disrepair, it’s a long way away, and it’s not a place that you can work every day,” he said.

He said the lawmakers should work to compel the Richland County Council to “adequately fund” the office to make repairs.

Neither Board of Voter Registration and Elections Chair Anjanette President nor Vice-Chari Yolanda Taylor were present at the meeting.

WIS obtained the DHS memo weeks after the meeting.

What lawmakers could do

House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland County) said the elections board could come to the legislative delegation to request funds.

“Reality is, that in Richland County our election commission did come to us and tell us that they needed help, we sent them initially to county council because we’re not in session right now so there’s nothing that the state can do except make promises for the future,” he said.

The legislature is back in session on Jan. 10, 2023.

During the fiscal year 2019-2020 budget, Rutherford succeeded in placing an earmark in the budget for the commission to spend funds on a third-party consultant to “advise the Richland County Election Commission on the conduct of elections.”

The budget text does not list an amount, but Rutherford told WIS it was worth $250,000.

The budget text also does not reference any money for warehouse or facility improvements.

In October, Rutherford described the facility as “totally inadequate” and he reached out to Richland County Council Chair Overture Walker about helping the elections office.

“We’ve known that for some time, we’re all scratching our heads as to why they still keep the machines there, but hopefully the funding is going to be there in the future if I have to provide it myself,” he said.

Rutherford said part of the inaction on the warehouse could stem from the lack of institutional knowledge on the elections board.

Governor Henry McMaster removed the board in February 2019. The move came after the sudden resignation of Former Richland County Director of Voter Registration and Elections Rokey Suleman and the failure of the county to count 1,040 votes as a result of broken election machines.

“It was left up to the board to figure out on their own, because the governor kicked everybody off, what the problems are,” he said.

Richland County Legislative Delegation Chair Rep. Leon Howard (D-Richland County) said a meeting will be needed “immediately” with the county council and elections office leadership to address the security.

“I think Mr. Brown, the election commission chair, needs to get with Richland County Sheriff’s Department or the City of Columbia to have some extra security there now until this matter is corrected,” he said.

Rep. Seth Rose (D-Richland County) is a former Richland County Councilman. He said right now there is too much “red tape” to make a quick change.

He admitted it’s not a perfect solution, but said the county council should appoint the elections board because the county pays for the board’s work.

“Because unfortunately, the system that we have in place right now, when something goes wrong we have the delegation saying well, they needed to be properly funded, they weren’t. The county will then point at the delegation and say well you appoint the board.”

He said he is looking to file a bill to give county legislative delegations the option to give the power of board appointment to county councils.

Rose said he is not aware of any formal requests from the county elections office for funds to improve the warehouse. He said a plan of correction and a dollar amount would be needed.

“If that had happened, I believe the state would have been able to secure the funds, our delegation would have been able to secure the funds for this,” he said.

He said he’s “extremely encouraged” by the news Brown and Graham are discussing different locations for the warehouse and is hoping for future dialogue among all parties.

“We are on notice about the issue. I think the delegation needs to cooperate and have conversations with the county,” he said.

Rep. Kirkman Finlay (R-Richland County) said the issue of the warehouse has been “on our radar for years.”

He said since the Aug. 23 meeting, the focus has been on making sure the November election is successful.

“The election is on top of us, we’ve got to get through this election and we’ve got to revamp how we do this,” he said.

Finlay said the county elections office can ask for assistance from state law enforcement if needed.

He expressed support for moving the facility to the mall location. Finlay said potential requests for funding would need detail.

“We just can’t hand them money, it’s got to come through the state channels, they’ve got to ask they’ve got to demonstrate what they need,” he said.

Finlay said he has not gotten an opportunity to speak with Mr. Graham outside of the Aug. 23 meeting due in part to the circumstances Graham faces.

“When we walked into that meeting, the top three people were gone. If he had not agreed to stay through the election, I don’t know what we would have done,” he said.

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