Politics & Government

How often do SC’s voting machines mess up? New election report details count problems

In the last election, some votes in South Carolina got counted twice. Others were credited to the wrong candidate.

Also, one observer thinks, the state’s 14-year-old voting machines are starting to show their age, producing other errors.

Those are some of the conclusions in a report released last week by the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.

On Jan. 22, the league will host a public forum at the Richland County Public Library on ways to improve the state’s election system. The group is backing efforts in the S.C. Legislature to require a paper ballot system.

“Over the years, they’ve made upgrades, and it’s still flawed,” Lynn Teague, vice president of the league, said of the state’s existing voting system. “They’re still counting votes wrong ... and all this without someone deliberately trying to mess with the system.”

Both the report’s author and the League of Women Voters praise the state Election Commission for making all of its 2018 election data publicly available.

“South Carolina has a lot more transparency,” said Teague. “That’s why we know what happened here.”

The Election Commission doesn’t dispute the errors reported. But, it says, most of the problems cited are the result of human error, not problems with the election system.

“After a deeper investigation, taking into account the full process, almost all of them are due to some missing knowledge on the part of the user,” said Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.

Even seeming errors in how the machines operated “are either an error in setting up the machines or in how the results were processed,” Whitmire said.

“When it’s operated correctly, the system works,” he said.

But the Election Commission shares the goals of the League of Women Voters in improving the state’s election system. The commission already has asked for proposals from vendors for new voting systems this spring, proposals that must include a paper trail of the ballots cast.

“This software was probably developed around the late ‘90s,” Whitmire said of the state’s existing voting machines. “It is old. The system’s old. The hardware’s old. We’re looking forward to having a new system.”

State officials upgraded the operating system on the state’s touchscreen voting machines before the 2018 election. Still, a report by University of South Carolina professor Duncan Buell cites errors in the vote-counting process and in how the aging machines operated.

During June’s statewide primary, for example, Buell says records appear to show ballots being counted twice in one Marlboro County precinct, likely as a result of the process of transferring the ballots from voting machines into the county’s central computer.

“There were four machines that had 148 votes, and then a fifth machine that had five votes,” Buell said.

Because of a malfunction in the fifth machine, its five votes had to be uploaded separately. In the process, poll workers mistakenly uploaded the rest of the results again, too, Buell said.

That added up to 301 votes, even though only 153 were cast.

“I can see Person A saying, ‘Upload the votes from this memory card,’ and walking away, and, instead of only uploading that one, Person B uploaded all five.”

In Bamberg County, one precinct in November was missing one of two County Council races, a bad enough problem. But, then, the central computer shifted 420 votes from one race to the other. Races lower down the ballot also saw votes shifted because of the error, Buell said.

The USC professor recorded a similar error in Beaufort County in 2010. Then, due to a similar vote shift, the last item on voters’ screens — a ballot amendment — received no votes either for or against, even though 725 voters cast ballots in the precinct.

Buell points out the shift in Bamberg didn’t change the outcome of the election — “both (council candidates) were unopposed.” Also, voters may not have noticed if their council district was missing from the ballot.

“If they left off the governor’s race, somebody would have noticed,” Buell said.

A bigger concern may be an increasing memory error seen in the results.

A check to see if the same vote appears in a voting machine’s redundant memory — and, thus, is confirmed — produced errors on just a handful of terminals from 2010 to 2016. But that number jumped to 57 terminals during the primary and 71 on Election Day.

Buell speculates those errors are the result of the age of the voting machines, which the state bought in 2004.

A similar error may be responsible for voting machines’ recording votes as being cast on days other than Election Day, which was Nov. 6 last year. Those wrong dates can be chalked up to errors — even those votes that were recorded after Election Day, the USC professor says.

“If the date shows up as Nov. 7, but the card was uploaded Nov. 6, that’s a bug,” he said. “I’d be more worried if the vote was added Nov. 7, and the card was uploaded Nov. 8.”

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.