Sumter County poll worker arrested, charged with tampering in June primary election

A Sumter County election poll worker has been charged with illegally coercing voters during the June Democratic Party primary elections to cast ballots for the candidate she supported.

Sara Benenhaley, 64, of Sumter, was charged Monday by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division of violating state voting laws with one count of “willful neglect or corrupt conduct by officers other than managers.”

In the warrant issued against her, SLED investigators claim Benenhaley, during both the June 14 primary and the June 28 runoff, “did use her position as a polling official to instruct or coerce voters to vote for a particular candidate.”  The warrant also claims witnesses have corroborated the accusations to SLED agents.

Benenhaley was taken into custody Monday, and was released later that day on a personal recognizance bond.  State law sets the penalty for anyone convicted of this crime at a fine of up to $500 or up to three years in jail.

While the warrant doesn’t say which precinct poll she was operating or for which candidate she was forcing voters to select, and Thom Berry, spokesman for SLED, said he did not these details.  However, the only races on the local ballot in both the June 14 and June 28 elections were Democratic Party primaries involving subsequent runoffs.  Those races included the state House District 50 race between Will Wheeler and Tom Drayton, the Sumter County Council District 1 race between Chris Sumpter and Caleb Mack Kershaw Jr. and the Sumter County Coroner race between Harvin Bullock and Robbie Baker.

Only a select number of Sumter County precincts were involved in either the state house race or county council race, while the Sumter County Coroner’s race was on the ballot at every Sumter County precinct.

Pat Jefferson, executive director of the Sumter County Voter Registration /Election Commission Office, said Tuesday she was unaware of the arrest or any investigation into the poll worker.

Back in November, on the day of the general election, the spouse of the ousted incumbent Coroner went on social media to claim that an investigation into her husband’s race against the newly-elected Baker was being investigated by state law enforcement.

“I’m really surprised with all the talk about Voter Intimidation today that The Sumter Citizen or The Sumter Item has still not reported the ongoing current active SLED investigation into the Coroner’s race in both the primary and run-off elections,” Cindy Bullock said at the time.

Shortly after her post, citing their policy of not commenting on an ongoing investigation, SLED officials declined to comment, or to confirm that an investigation was underway. SLED confirmed Tuesday that the investigation was conducted at the request of the Sumter Police Department.

For his part, Baker said Tuesday that he was unaware of the charges, and that Benenhaley was not part of his campaign staff or group of volunteers during his campaign.  “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.

Baker defeated Bullock in the June runoff by 225 votes, receiving 52.4 percent of the 4,721 ballots cast in the June 28 race.

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