Wednesday, October 27, 2010

More Questions About Our Election System

I have never met Steve Skardon, but from what I know he seems to be doing good work as the executive director of the Palmetto Project. Palmetto Project is a nonprofit which helps working class families find affordable healthcare, procures books and laptops for school children, and connects families to community resources. Oh, yes – he is also involved in registering people to vote – according to the Palmetto Project website. That’s where Steve and I got crossed up recently.

On Sept. 29, I wrote a column posing questions regarding South Carolina’s iVotronic voting machines. A local citizen was getting little or no cooperation from state and county elections officials in his efforts to learn how the machines worked – and sometimes failed to work. That citizen – I called him a “citizen investigator” – is Charleston commodities trader Frank Heindel. Heindel had sent a number of Freedom of Information requests to elections officials and found them less than prompt in their reply. I wrote a column about his queries and frustrations and he has since posted the results of his ongoing investigation at scvotinginfo.com.

I was unaware of how deeply involved Skardon is with the state election system until I received an angry e-blast from him a few days after my column ran.  Taken aback by his furious tone, I accepted his invitation to meet and discuss his take on our state’s voting machine problems. Then I received another email from Frank Heindel, with some curious and troubling information. It seems that the chairman of the board of the Palmetto Project is one Lee Bussell, who also happens to be chairman/CEO of Chernoff Newman, one of Columbia’s most prestigious advertising and public relations firms (http://sunshinereview.org/index.php/Chernoff_Newman). Bussell is well connected in state business and politics and was the S.C. Chamber’s Business Person of the Year, in 2007.

“Without a doubt, Lee Bussell is the consummate citizen,” then-University of South Carolina President Andrew Sorensen said on that occasion. “He is a respected business leader, deeply devoted to his alma mater, and sensitively attuned to his family and community.”

More to the point, his company, Chernoff Newman, received more than $500,000 for lobbying services from the state Election Commission for 2008/2009. I am not accusing Skardon and Bussell of a conflict of interest here, but I am saying there is an appearance of possible impropriety, and as anyone in public relations knows, appearance can be more important than reality. This damage could have been mitigated with a simple “in the name of full disclosure” statement you see in public discourse almost daily.

But in his many defenses of state and local election officials and the iVotronic voting machines, Skardon has said nothing of Lee Bussell or Chernoff Newman. There was certainly no mention of this connection in his angry email to me, the email in which he assured me, “We have the best available election system currently on the market.”

Nor did he acknowledge Lee Bussell when he defended the voting establishment in an open letter to S.C. Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Fowler and in the pages of The State newspaper last summer, following the troubling June 8 Democratic primary. But he did assure Fowler and the public that “South Carolinians have every right to be proud of their election system, and can be confident that their votes are recorded accurately. Not only does every vote count in our state, they are counted and counted accurately.”

Only last week he told Robert Behre of the Post and Courier “...this is the most reliable and accurate (voting machine) that is currently out there.” But he did not mention that his board chairman is doing business with the state Election Commission and had received a half-million dollars for lobbying services. When I asked Skardon via email about his relationship with Lee Bussell, I received another blast of angry emails. They included the words “libel” and “collusion”.

“Lee’s volunteer service as chairman of our Board is hardly a secret that needs to be ‘disclosed’ to anyone,” he wrote. “Since 2008, his name has always been prominently listed as our chairman.”

Yes, but were his dealings with the Election Commission listed anywhere?

Negotiations for a meeting broke down. I have yet to meet with Skardon.

Steve Skardon’s relationship to the state Election Commission, vis-à-vis Lee Bussell, is a perfect metaphor for what is wrong with our voting machines and our election officials. Maybe there is nothing improper or unethical here, but there are enough questions and enough dubious behavior that a reasonable person has the right to be suspicious. The public deserves answers and transparency from the Election Commission and its defenders, yet what we get is foot-dragging and acrimony.


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