Friday’s editorial registers our concern about the latest iteration of Atlantic Beach’s election debacle this year:
“When you’ve got people fighting each other every single day, you just can’t move forward. You can’t.”
– Atlantic Beach Town Manager Benny Webb, before the court hearing on Thursday
It must be tiring to be any sort of leader in Atlantic Beach. All that looking over your shoulder and anticipating knives in your back would quickly get exhausting.
At court on Thursday, that tension and divisiveness was on display even as town residents and officials waited for the hearing to begin. Snide comments and sniping aimed at other residents filled at least one of the court’s two waiting rooms, directed at those in the other room.
The case, prompted by Horry County’s seizure Tuesday of voting machines held onto by the town since its November election, is just the latest step in a what can only be described as a monumentally poorly run election. Votes in Russia are better handled and more trustworthy than the recent mockery of democracy in Atlantic Beach.
For those who’ve managed to block it from their minds, a quick refresher: November’s election in Atlantic Beach featured voters who testified they were intimidated by scare tactics and refused access to the ballot box. Others said their landlords threatened to throw them out if they didn’t vote as they were told. Some well-known, long-time residents (such as former mayor Irene Armstrong) did manage to vote only to have their votes disallowed because their status as residents somehow couldn’t be verified. And we can’t forget the mysterious outsider who showed up and claimed to be from the attorney general’s office and was given control of the polling place for a while, at least until her claim proved false.
In short, it’s hard to say who exactly won the seats in play. We do know that the town as a whole came out the loser. Jake Evans, the man elected mayor only to see the vote voided, summed it up well on Tuesday, as sheriff’s deputies prepared to break into the town’s evidence room and seize the voting machines: “It’s a mess.”
The current dustup centers on those machines, which the town kept “as evidence” after its sham of an election. After a farcical meeting of the town’s Municipal Election Commission, full of fanciful conspiracy theories about state and regional politicians conspiring to take over the town, a new vote was ordered, to be held within six months. In the meantime, those left in charge (the losers, coincidentally, if the scrapped election results can be trusted) declared that the only explanation for their loss must be voting fraud, and they decided to mount their own investigation of these suspect machines.
Horry County and the State Election Commission wisely stepped in and cried foul. The machines belong to us, they said, and if you want us to inspect them or have concerns, let us know; we’ll check them out for you. After all, it seems the height of illogical behavior to allow the presumed losers of an election be the ones in charge of investigating that same election. As Marci Andino of the state commission wrote in an email to the county on Monday: “Unauthorized tampering with the voting equipment … places the integrity of the statewide voting system in jeopardy.”
Atlantic Beach has already done plenty to put the integrity of the state’s system of municipal election commissions in jeopardy. It would be a shame to allow them to further erode the public’s trust in one of the most sacred tasks of our representative democracy.
A decision in the case has been put off until at least Wednesday, because the town attorney said he needed more time to prepare. That delay in itself is rather difficult to stomach, as the county began asking for the machines to be returned more than a month ago, in no uncertain terms. It’s hard to see how any of the ensuing actions could have been a surprise.
As to the merits of the town’s case, that too is hard to give credence to. Kenneth Davis, representing the town, said that town leaders need to take back the machines and hold on to them because “there’s an ongoing election protest in Atlantic Beach.” The county’s attorneys and the judge were skeptical on Thursday, asking multiple times if any official protest had been filed. Well, no, Davis countered, but just look in the papers; everybody knows that people think something’s wrong. When was the town planning to investigate this unfiled protest? Well, Davis said, we were just about to get to that – more than a month after the election – but you took the machines.
Thursday afternoon, current councilman and would-be mayor Jake Evans said that as far as he’s aware, no protest of the election exists, which would seem to undercut much of the basis for the town’s case. “There’s not a protest. I didn’t file a protest,” he said. “Even if I filed a protest, it wouldn’t have anything to do with the machines.”
Has anybody else in the town filed a protest? “Nobody’s filed a protest,” Evans said. Instead, Evans has so far indicated that he’s happy to wait for the new election, which he’s confident he’ll win again the second time around. As for the case, Evans said he’s firmly on the side of the county in this fight. Speaking of the town, he said “I’m probably going to be the worst co-defendant that they could ever dream of having.”
But all of this could only presage the future if other disturbing plans that came to light this week are put into action. Included in the court paperwork on the case is an email from Atlantic Beach Town Manager Benny Webb to Horry County attorney Sanford Graves. In it, Webb refuses to return the county’s machines, but also notes that “if Horry County has some machines that are not compromised and at a reasonable price the Town of Atlantic Beach would consider a purchase of those machines.”
Lord, protect us.