South Carolina election officials insist the machines voters will use Nov. 2 will give an accurate tally, but a growing number of people are less sure.

For six years, the state's voters have used the iVotronic touch-screen system made by Election Systems & Software, a Nebraska-based company that's one of the major players in the industry.

The state bought these 12,000 machines with federal dollars doled out in response to Florida's "hanging chad" controversy during the 2000 presidential race. They replaced a hodgepodge of voting systems used by the state's 46 counties.

Despite criticism of the iVotronic system in other states, the reliability of South Carolina's machines hadn't been much of an issue until Charleston County Councilman Vic Rawl questioned them after what many considered his shocking Senate primary loss to unknown Manning resident Alvin Greene.

But Rawl's loss -- and the puzzling discovery that Greene won big on many of the counties' machines while simultaneously losing to Rawl in paper absentee ballots in those same counties -- breathed fire into a debate that had smoldered quietly among software experts, private citizens and some members of the S.C. League of Women Voters.

"We put up pretty substantial circumstantial evidence that it couldn't have happened but for the machines," Rawl said of his loss.

No paper trail

The issue is by no means unique to South Carolina. A recent report from the Brennan Center in New York analyzed problems with voting machines in other states and said more should be done to document their reliability.

"Unlike makers of other commercial products, voting machine manufacturers are not obligated to report malfunctions to any government agency," the report concluded, "and election officials and the public are often totally reliant on the private companies that sell and service the equipment to voluntarily keep them aware of potential problems."

While everyone agrees that concerns about the machines shouldn't keep anyone from casting their ballot next month, they also know this is a prime time to raise the issue, as voting -- and how it works -- moves to the forefront of people's minds.

Still, the voting machine debate seems stuck in a Catch-22. Supporters say there's no evidence that the machines have caused problems; detractors say the fact that the machines can't be double-checked for errors is the problem.

Further complicating the debate is its complexity: Election officials admit there's no perfect election technology that guarantees accurate and secure results. The success of any technology, from paper ballots to the most state-of-the-art machines, depends on the competence of humans using it.

There's another Catch-22, too, when it comes to their security. The machine's software is held in secret by ES&S for competitive reasons, while the state's security plan can remain secret under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

"We wouldn't want to give a thief a map of the schematics of our burglar alarm system," State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said. "I think most people do understand that."

Even if they do, detractors note that the state's argument boils down to state officials saying, "Trust us" in a political climate where trust in government has taken a hit.

While the iVotronic machines haven't had a perfect run in South Carolina -- several shut down in Horry County in 2008 -- there had been little talk of their affecting an outcome until June 9. That's when Rawl and his supporters began examining how he lost the Democratic Senate primary by 20 points to a man who didn't campaign, and who later was discovered to be facing a felony charge.

Truett Nettles, a former Charleston County Board of Elections chairman and the lawyer who handled Rawl's appeal, said his best guess about what happened is that every fourth vote for Rawl somehow was switched to a vote for Greene on the state's voting machines.

"The result here was an anomaly. It wasn't just a freak thing. It was statistically impossible," Nettles said.

However, the state party rejected the appeal because Nettles and Rawl could offer only circumstantial proof that it happened. And Nettles said that's the problem.

"We've got to have a system capable of going back and reviewing it and verifying it," he said. "The system we have now is not legal because you can't get a recount. You just get a printout, which is the same thing you have the first time, which doesn't prove anything."

Whitmire said the state acknowledges there is no voter-verified paper audit trail and noted there were no such systems on the market when the state bought its machines six years ago. Retrofitting them with printers could cost about $14 million.

He noted the iVotronic has been well-received by the public. A survey after the 2006 elections found that 71 percent of voters were very confident they provided "an honest, fair and accurate" result, while 22 percent were somewhat confident.

"The system has been used in literally thousands of elections, and it's performed well every single time," Whitmire said. "We feel confident in the security reliability and accuracy and we feel South Carolina voters should, too."

Marilyn Bowers, director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, has more than 30 years of experience running elections. She said those questioning the machines are in the minority.

And she said the machines' testing and security measures are extensive and have worked well.

"I have full confidence in this voting system. These few people making this noise are not the majority," she said.

Growing skepticism

But their numbers seem to be on the rise. Frank Heindel, a Charleston businessman, began asking about the machines after the June primaries and retrieved reams of records showing assorted problems -- problems election officials insist didn't affect any results.

"I have a hard time being confident with it when you have a secret security plan and a secret certification report," he said. "Nobody is paying attention. Nobody is looking over anybody's shoulder."

Duncan A. Buell, a professor with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of South Carolina, has studied the machines along with the state's League of Women Voters.

Buell appeared before state election commissioners late last month to discuss a 2007 report from Ohio that found the machines can't be reliably used for elections and that no procedures will reduce the risks.

But he shares the same concern about software glitches and proprietary software and also finds Rawl's loss to Greene the only anomalous event in the state to date.

"A lot of people have said we've had no problems, but no one can say we've had no problems because no one knows what the truth really was," Buell said. "The South Carolina opinion is we have policies and procedures that eliminate the risk. I don't think there's any reason to accuse the Election Commission of conspiracy or anything, but I think there's a great deal of inertia. I think their intransigence on this subject is not malicious. I think it's just intransigence."

S.C. League of Women Voters President Barbara Zia said she shares Buell's concerns and finds it unfortunate that the issue isn't on anyone's radar screen until there's an election.

"You wait for something to happen, like a meltdown like we saw with these anomalous results in the June primary that are very difficult to explain," she said.

Douglas Jones is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa and also serves as a scientific expert on the federal Election Assistance Commission's Technical Guidelines Development Committee. Jones said South Carolina's iVotronic machines are fairly typical of modern touch-screen systems, and the impact of their occasional flaws -- such as sluggish responses or a slightly miscalibrated display -- is not well understood.

"We understand what goes wrong with pencil and paper," he said, adding that counties in his state got rid of their iVotronic machines. "I don't think we're as good understanding what goes wrong with touch screens and computer- presented paper."

Still Jones said he's glad there's no consensus on what type of machine is best "because if there's a flaw in that technology, we'd have no fallback."

Folks 'not as complacent'

While the state's ongoing budget crisis likely will prevent any quick response to the machines' critics here, the iVotronic machines are about halfway through their life expectancy. State officials gradually will talk about replacing them, even as they reaffirm that the machines are working fine.

Meanwhile, the voting machine issue will continue to percolate nationally. A Libertarian candidate in Georgia's secretary of state race is making doubts about his state's voting machines a keystone in his campaign.

And the federal government is expected to set new standards for voting machines and decide what to do about the Brennan report's advice to create a publicly available, searchable database of voting system glitches; to mandate rules for when voting manufacturers must report to the database; and to give a federal agency power to ensure vendors report to that database and take steps to fix any problems found.

"Bottom line: lost votes damage public confidence in the electoral system," said Lawrence Norden, the attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice who authored its recent report.

"We've seen that this is a persistent problem -- that voting systems fail in one jurisdiction, go unreported, then pop up in a different locale or another election. Too often, voting system vendors have failed to provide election officials and the public with timely notice of a system failure or vulnerability, or have immediately blamed election officials for the problems rather than conduct a thorough investigation."

Steve Skardon, director of the Palmetto Project and co-chair of a state committee that helped select to the iVotronic system, said that before those machines arrived here, voting in the state was a much more dubious affair. He noted two studies found at least 38,000 ballots in South Carolina weren't counted in the 2000 presidential race here -- not enough to tip the result to Democrat Al Gore, but still a frightening number.

Skardon said he likes Rawl but sees a host of other explanations for why he lost to Greene in June.

"It's always good that people are concerned about any voting system. We should never be happy and think that our system is perfect," Skardon said. "However, this is the most reliable and accurate that's currently out there."

Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the National League of Women Voters, said any voting method must be considered in the larger context of what steps election officials take to ensure accurate, prompt and secure results.

Asked if things have improved since the 2000 election, where some doubted President George W. Bush's narrow win in Florida, MacNamara said yes, at least in one sense.

"I really think that the best thing that has come out of that is folks are not as complacent as they were before 2000," she said. "Folks are increasingly aware of their election processes. Folks are paying attention."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.