South Carolina Primary Voters Will Use Brand New Machines | WGLT

South Carolina Primary Voters Will Use Brand New Machines

Feb 28, 2020
Originally published on February 28, 2020 12:20 pm

When primary voters go to the polls in South Carolina on Saturday, they'll be the first in the nation to use all-new voting equipment. It's one of about a dozen states replacing all or most of their voting machines this year, in part because of security concerns after Russian interference in the 2016 election.

South Carolina officials are eager to emphasize the reliability of their state's equipment following the Iowa caucuses debacle, where a flawed app delayed the reporting of accurate results for weeks.

The state's old voting machines relied on touchscreen technology that didn't leave a paper trail that could be audited after the election. The new machines will mark a paper ballot with a bar code and the selected candidates' names. The ballots then get inserted into a scanner for counting.

Chris Whitmire of the state's Election Commission showed voters earlier this week how to use the new equipment, part of an effort to educate them about changes to the voting process ahead of the primary.

"When we say we have a paper record of the voter's voted ballot at the end of the day, they like that and that makes them feel more confident in the integrity of the election and about the security of the election and it does us, too," said Whitmire.

Chris Whitmire of the South Carolina Election Commission has been showing voters how to use the state's new equipment.
Pam Fessler / NPR

At an early voting site in Columbia this week, voter Dwayne Sims agreed.

"I do like the fact that there's a paper ballot. I did double-check and make sure that the person I selected was the name that was on the ballot."

But Sims worries that the extra steps needed to vote under the new system could cause long lines at some polling sites.

Another voter at the site was Duncan Buell, a computer scientist at the University of South Carolina who is concerned about aspects of the technology. "I'm not a fan of the ballot marking devices because the votes are actually counted not from the text that I can read, but from bar codes."

He says he'd be more confident if the state more thoroughly audited the ballots afterward. It's a concern computer scientists have expressed elsewhere, including in neighboring Georgia, which is also using new machines this year.

Buell thinks one advantage South Carolina has is that it was able to use the equipment for several low-turnout elections and will have time to work out any kinks before the November general election.

Some voters also have concerns about the technology.

"I personally cannot read the bar code, so I'm having to trust the system," said Melissa Rose.

It was a concern shared by the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, but co-President Christe McCoy-Lawrence says the group is putting it aside to focus on voter turnout.

"We feel now that one of the greatest dangers comes from people losing faith in the voting process," she said. "So we did not agree with this decision, but it's made, so we are now completely engaged in conveying confidence in the system."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When primary voters go to the polls in South Carolina on Saturday, they will be the first in the nation to use all new voting equipment. South Carolina is one of about a dozen states replacing all or most of their voting machines this year. State officials do not expect any problems, though after the disastrous Iowa caucuses, no one is taking anything for granted. Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Poll workers had to help voters cast their early absentee ballots at the Richland County election office in Columbia this week. Most people were using the system for the first time. They had to insert a paper ballot into an electronic marking device, choose their candidate and review the ballot, which included both a barcode and their candidate's name. They then took the ballot to a scanner to be counted.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All righty (ph), darling. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you so much.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You're welcome. Enjoy the rest of your day.

FESSLER: The new system involves extra steps, but the state wanted to replace its old touch-screen machines with ones that produce a paper trail. Voter Dwayne Sims (ph) appreciates that change.

DWAYNE SIMS: I do like the fact that there is a paper ballot. I did double check and make sure that the person that I selected was the name that was on the ballot.

FESSLER: But he does worry that the extra steps could cause long lines at some polling sites. Most people here say the system is pretty easy to use, and they like it, with the caveat that new technology can always cause problems. Among those voting was Duncan Buell, a computer scientist at the University of South Carolina.

DUNCAN BUELL: I'm not a fan of the ballot-marking devices because the votes are actually counted not from the text that I can read but from barcodes.

FESSLER: He says he'd be more confident if the state conducted a thorough audit of the ballots afterwards. It's a concern computer scientists have expressed elsewhere, including in neighboring Georgia, which also has new machines. Buell thinks one advantage South Carolina has is that it was able to use the equipment in a few small elections and now in the primary so it has time to work out any kinks before November.

BUELL: The good thing is that we're kind of building up in terms of turnout and complexity of the ballot.

CHRIS WHITMIRE: Are you going to vote on Saturday?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes.

WHITMIRE: OK. So you'll be using this voting system for all elections going forward.

FESSLER: In nearby Orangeburg County, Chris Whitmire of the state's election commission is showing a voter how to use the new equipment. It's one of many demonstrations that have been held around the state to make voters feel as comfortable as possible.

WHITMIRE: When we say we have a paper record of the voter's voted ballot at the end of the day, they like that. And that makes them feel more confident in the integrity of the election and about the security of the election, and it does us, too.

FESSLER: But one voter who comes by, Melissa Rose (ph), isn't so sure about that.

MELISSA ROSE: I personally cannot read the barcode.

WHITMIRE: Right.

ROSE: So I'm having to trust the system.

FESSLER: Whitmire tries to convince her that it's not that different than counting hand-marked ballots. But with all the news about hacking attempts and system malfunctions, it's no surprise some voters are skeptical. The League of Women Voters of South Carolina also had concerns about the barcodes. But Co-President Christe McCoy-Lawrence says the group's putting aside those concerns to focus on voter turnout.

CHRISTE MCCOY-LAWRENCE: We feel now that one of the greatest dangers comes from people losing faith in the voting process. So we did not agree with this decision, but it's made, so we are now completely engaged in conveying confidence in the system.

FESSLER: So voters will show up and hopefully not encounter any problems that will discourage them in the future. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Columbia, S.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETTA BAKER'S "ONE DIME BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.