Vote-counting expert, former voting machines’ technician detail possible missteps in Richland County’s election

Experts: Simple math would have told officials of need for more voting machines

11/11/2012 12:00 AM

11/10/2012 10:32 PM

Scroll to bottom of page to view a list of how many machines each precinct should have received based on the number of registered voters. Use the zoom button or download a copy.

Planning Richland County’s 2012 election didn’t require rocket science, yet the ship exploded.

Critics – which is pretty much everyone – say last week’s voting was an utter mess. Election Day was entwined with unmatched voter frustration, people who walked away because of long lines, vote-counting delays, lawsuits, ballot seizures, an election protest and recriminations about the motives of some county election officials.

“I think our voting experience (Tuesday) is as bad as the worst three, four or five counties in the nation,” said Duncan Buell, a USC computer science professor who has analyzed South Carolina voting patterns for eight years.

“I don’t know that there are many counties in the country that it took that long,” Buell said of precinct lines that resulted in some voters waiting as many as seven hours or going home without exercising their constitutional right.

As Election Week 2 begins, voters wonder when the state Supreme Court might decide whether Tuesday’s unofficial outcomes will stand or if the justices will OK a recount, which the chief justice halted on Friday at the request of the state GOP.

The chief justice’s order froze election processes and led to the postponement of an inquiry by county legislators who created the Elections & Voter Registration office that is at the center of the public outcry.

But discontented voters on Monday plan to call for a new election and to vent allegations that voting machine shortages seemed to occur at precincts where opposition to the controversial penny sales tax increase was strong and that machines hindered straight-ticket voting.

Math was simple

Buell, who lends his research to the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, said simple mathematics would have solved what appears to be the core of Election Day 2012 problems – too few machines.

“We have known for two years how many terminals were used in Richland County in November 2010 (826 during that year’s gubernatorial election), how many votes were cast per machine, and how many votes were cast after closing time on each terminal and in each precinct (an indicator of long lines).

“It should have been assumed that at least as many terminals would be needed Tuesday,” he said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist.”

The county elections office, headed by Lillian McBride, placed 729 machines in 124 precincts during the presidential election, according to a tally provided by Elections Commission chairwoman Liz Crum.

Tuesday’s turnout was 153,999 by the county elections office’s current count. The turnout in 2010 was 120,000.

That’s 28 percent more voters on 97 fewer machines.

McBride has not spoken publicly since Tuesday night and has not returned phone messages all week. But Crum has apologized after acknowledging that everything that could have gone wrong did.

“We will be sure this never happens again,” Crum said last week.

Buell said county officials, as well as the two candidates in the disputed House District 75 race that landed the election in court, have not accepted his offers to help with analyses.

Buell is not new to miscounts in Richland County elections. His analysis for the League of Women Voters found that 1,127 ballots from the Bluff and Ward 21 precincts were not counted in the November 2010 election. He also found errors in nine other precincts. None of the miscounts would have affected the outcome of elections, he said at the time.

Some critics, including elected officials, are calling for McBride to be fired by the legislative delegation that hired her.

If you listen to Buell and Jim Williams, a plain-spoken election machine technician from Lexington County who kept Richland County’s machines operating smoothly for 13 years, it was all avoidable.

The PhD in mathematics and the technician agree the key was machine shortages.

“That was nowhere near enough machines,” said Williams, who estimates he prepared as many as 16,200 Richland County machines in municipal and countywide races. “You can’t get them fixed quick enough (when they malfunction).”

Williams also said he would not have accepted setting aside 45 broken machines before an election, as Crum said happened in last week’s election. “Forty five is a large number,” Williams said, adding he would have pushed to spend money to fix them.

Technician questions machine preparation

He said he saw trouble looming as far back as late winter as machines were examined in advance of Columbia’s municipal election in April.

Williams said he worried about the way his Richland County successors were going about maintaining the iVotronic machines between elections and preparing them for voting.

He said he met with Cheryl Goodwin and others in the elections office. Goodwin in 2011 took over his job overseeing the machines’ maintenance and preparation. He said he noticed they were taking shortcuts and calibrating machines in ways that contradicted his knowledge and shortcut his meticulous procedures.

Efforts to reach Goodwin Saturday were unsuccessful.

Williams remembers telling Goodwin, “If that’s the way you want to do it, O-K,” he said using an inflection that implies skepticism.

“That isn’t the way I was trained,” Williams said he thought to himself without telling Goodwin, whom he said had not accepted three prior offers from him to help orient Goodwin and her staff of technicians. McBride hired Goodwin from her post at the S.C. Election Commission shortly after the legislative delegation chose McBride in July 2011 over former elections director Mike Cinnamon, who had 40 years of experience in Richland County elections.

“She never called to say, ‘Hey, I’m going over to the (voting machine) warehouse,” Williams said of Goodwin. “Come by and show me what all this stuff is.”

The climate-controlled warehouse off Monticello Road holds 1,000 machines, parts, computer cartridges, electric wires and 15-machine carts used to charge a batch of battery-powered machines at the same time.

“When you walk in, it’s pretty daunting to see all that stuff,” he said.

Williams said he stuck to a strict seven-step procedure to prepare machines as Election Day approached.

He cited several examples of maintenance standards in McBride’s administration he found suspect:

• During calibration, after setting the time and date of the election, the machines ask the technician a series of questions. A key question is, “Is this the correct precinct?”

“It has a green ‘yes’ and a red ‘no,’ ” Williams said.

“It is my understanding that when they got to that screen, they answered, ‘no’ ... on every machine.”

Williams said the technicians believed the machine had accounted for the precincts during the calibration process.

• Goodwin’s way of checking electronic ballots was faster than Williams’ way. But it was not as thorough, he said.

“I vote the machine,” Williams said. “I touched every candidate’s name to be sure it highlighted.”

He said he did that to each machine that was to be used in an election.

“If you don’t look at every machine, every candidate’s name, you don’t know that it’s right.”

Williams acknowledges that losing the Richland County job cost him money. But the income was small compared to his retirement money from 20 years as a UPS manager.

“I wish them well,” he said of the Richland County officials now supervising elections. “I hope they do extremely well the next election – if they’re still there.”

Voting Machines

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