With news that a Sumter County poll worker has been charged with illegally coercing voters during the June Democratic Party primaries, we thought it important to go back and look at the specific results from June to see if there was any way the actions of one poll worker could have changed the outcomes of the recent elections.
The results of our analysis might surprise you.
Before we look at the numbers, let’s make two things clear: First, Sara Benenhaley, the poll worker accused of influencing voters is just that; accused. She has only been charged and released on a personal recognizance bond, not convicted of the charge. So, even though SLED was confident enough in the findings of their investigation to bring charges, it does not mean the accusations they have accused her of definitively occurred.
In the warrant issued against her, SLED investigators claim Benenhaley “did use her position as a polling official to instruct or coerce voters to vote for a particular candidate” during both the June 14 and June 28 primaries. Her charge is one count of “willful neglect or corrupt conduct by officers other than managers.”
After pulling out the stored paperwork from the 2016 election, Pat Jefferson, executive director of the Sumter County Voter Registration /Election Commission Office, said Benenhaley was assigned to the Sunset precinct during both of those election dates.
Secondly, no one, as of Tuesday afternoon, has publicly stated who Benenhaley was trying to benefit with her alleged actions. Trying to assume which specific candidate she was allegedly actively working to support, or hinder, at this time would be just that, speculation.
This being said, depending on which candidate she was trying to assist, or hinder – if that in fact was happening – the election returns coming out of the precinct she operated could, and we stress could, be problematic.
Only one race, the Democratic Party primary runoff in the Sumter County Coroner race between then incumbent Harvin Bullock and eventual nominee Robbie Baker, appeared on the June 28 Sunset precinct ballot. And while Baker carried the Sunset precinct with 61.3 percent of the vote, in absolute terms Baker only received 49 votes in Sunset, compared to Bullock’s 31 votes. Baker ended up winning the June 28 runoff by 225 votes, meaning even if Bullock had received every single vote cast in the Sunset precinct, he would have still been defeated.
Things get a little trickier, however, when we look at the June 14 primary results.
There were four races for voters in the Sunset precinct to choose from in the initial primaries, three in the Democratic Party and one in the Republican Party. Three of these races would not have seen their result change even if one candidate received all the votes in the precinct.
U.S. House of Representatives District 5 race: Analysis Conclusion? No impact
On the Republican side, the only race available for voters was the U.S. House of Representatives District 5 contest, where Mick Mulvaney easily defeated Ray Craig by more than 16,400 votes districtwide. Needless to say, the 18 Republican votes cast in the Sunset precinct had no discernible impact on the result.
Sumter County Clerk of Court: Analysis Conclusion? No impact
In the Democratic race for Sumter County Clerk of Court, incumbent Jamie Campbell received 77 votes in the Sunset precinct, compared to 55 votes for his challenger, Kevin Johnson. While it would have made the race even more nail-biting for Campbell, who ultimately won with 55.3 percent of the vote countywide, even if Johnson had received all 132 Sunset votes, he would not have been able to catch the incumbent.
Sumter County Council Dist. 3 race: Analysis Conclusion? No impact
In the Sumter County Council District 3 race, Patty Wilson defeated James Self 56 votes to 32 in the Sunset precinct. This was similar to her nearly 2-to-1 margin throughout the district which she one with 448 votes to Self’s 225 votes. So, even if Self had received every single vote in the Sunset precinct, he still would not have received his party’s nomination. And while Wilson would go on to be the Democratic nominee, she ultimately lost to Republican incumbent Jimmy Byrd in the general election, who was unopposed for his party’s nomination.
Sumter County Coroner race: Analysis Conclusion? Potential Significant Impact
Here’s where things get interesting.
In what turned out to be a tight three-way race for their party’s nomination, Robbie Baker ended up receiving a plurality of the vote coming out of the Sunset primary in the June 14 election, garnering 52 votes versus 42 for Bullock and 40 for eventual third-place finisher Isaac Johnson.
Countywide, Bullock won the first round of balloting with 37.7 percent of the vote, nowhere near the 50 percent needed to prevent a runoff. Baker received 31.3 percent of the vote, finishing second countywide, while Johnson garnered 31.0 percent of the vote.
So, while the race was destined for a runoff two weeks later and no one could have won the Democratic nomination outright by receiving all of the votes in Sunset, the candidates advancing could have been different.
Because, while he ultimately advanced to the runoff, Baker’s 0.3 percent margin of victory over Johnson equaled only a mere 16 votes. This means that if, and we stress if, more than 16 Sunset voters were coerced into voting for Baker, or more than 16 Sunset voters were convinced not to vote for Johnson, or any combination therein, then it should have been Johnson, and not Baker, that faced off with Bullock in the head-to-head matchup two weeks later.
Instead, it was Baker who won the runoff and, unopposed in the November general election, was elected to a four-year term in office.
With 134 votes cast in the Sunset precinct, this means if nefarious actions of one poll worker influenced less than 12 percent of the voters walking in that day, they could have not only violated the law, but actually swayed the election.
On his behalf, Baker has denied knowing Benenhaley, adding she was not part of his campaign staff or group of volunteers. “I honestly don’t know who that lady is. I’ve never heard her name, and I probably wouldn’t know her if she walked up to me,” Baker said.
Both Baker and Jefferson seemed genuinely surprised about the poll worker’s charges when asked about them Tuesday morning, a day after SLED investigators made their arrest.
Still, if Benenhaley is found guilty of the charges against her, and it is revealed that it was the coroner’s race that she was trying to influence, it could call into question the validity of Baker’s election.