Atlantic Beach election under the microscope

Residents of Atlantic Beach cast ballots Tuesday in a special election for mayor, town council

Tuesday, Atlantic Beach held an election that was ordered by Governor Nikki Haley in March.

"When the governor issues an executive order for a state agency to do something, we react," said State Election Commission spokesperson Chris Whitmire. "We want the voters to have an opportunity to cast a ballot today in a fair election and have the reassurance that their votes will count."

Governor Haley issued the order because she felt the town's election commission did not act swiftly enough.

Atlantic Beach's Election Commission threw out the town's November 2011 election after some of the losing candidates appealed the results, but the commission did not set a new election date.

The governor's order also included Horry County overseeing the election instead of Atlantic Beach.

Horry County faced a hurdle in finding a polling location when Atlantic Beach leaders said the normal polling place was already booked for the May 22nd election date ordered by the governor.

"We had to move the polling place. So we sent out post cards to all voters to notify them of this election," said Horry County Director of Registration and Election Sandy Martin.

Town leaders said the Atlantic Beach Community Center, where elections are usually held, would be occupied by the town's municipal judge during the town's Bike Fest, an annual motorcycle rally.

But, Tuesday afternoon, we found the town community center empty, with the doors locked, and a sign in the window saying the poll location had been moved to the First Missionary Baptist Church off of Highway 17 in Atlantic Beach.

We tried to contact Atlantic Beach's mayor to ask why the community center was not in use, but have yet to receive a response.

Residents of the small four-block town are frustrated with the drama and the confusion.

"Most of us wish the first election had gone through. We have to do this but it was really unnecessary," said Atlantic Beach property owner Kathy Andrews. "It's a waste of taxpayer money. It's a waste of time. It did not have to happen. Most of us work, and we do not have this kind of time. Hopefully most of the people know that the election is taking place here at the church because of the confusion with bike week."

According to the Civil Right's Voting Act, all changes to South Carolina elections must be approved by the Department of Justice because of the state's history of disenfranchising minorities.

Martin said the governor was given what's called "preclearance" for her order to set a date for a new Atlantic Beach election.

While the DOJ has yet to rule on the precinct change, Martin said the county often moves forward with the DOJ giving approval at a later date.

Even before the voting began Tuesday, Atlantic Beach Concerned Citizens member, Patricia Bellamy, filed a lawsuit against Horry County to seek information about the county's voting machines used in the last election. The town's election commission had cited evidence of "phony voting machines" in its decision to overturn the November 2011 election.

Tuesday, Bellamy sat in the election process as a poll watcher but she would not comment about the pending lawsuit.

"We've done a full audit of the machines and found the votes casts in the last election were correct," said state election commission spokesman Chris Whitmire. "We've given that information to interested parties already."

The voting machines Horry County used for Tuesday's election are not the same ones used in the November election.

"They are going to work fine like they are suppose to and like they did last time," said Martin. "We don't anticipate any problems."

At one point Tuesday afternoon, some of the voting machines shut down. Martin said an outlet supplying power to the machines stopped working and a new outlet was used instead.

As for who's on Tuesday's ballot in Atlantic Beach, incumbent Retha Pierce will face council members Jake Evans and Windy Price for mayor.

In last November's overturned election, Evans defeated Pierce and Price.

Also in that election, Joshephine Isom and Charlene Taylor were declared the winners over Misty Umphries, Monique Pointer and James Van Fleet for the council seats.

All of those candidates for town council are on the ballot with the exception of Umphries.

Pierce has said she is not recognizing Tuesday's election and did not want to comment.