When City of Columbia voters go the polls in next month's municipal election, they will be among the first in South Carolina to use the state's new voting system, one that will now include a paper trail of ballots cast.
As the new system rolls out, some candidates are nervous about how voters will interact with the process for the first time.
South Carolina had been among a small handful of states that had no paper trail for voting. Earlier this year, the state announced it would be rolling out a new $51 million voting system to replace the 13,000 aging, increasingly antiquated digital systems South Carolina had been using for more than a decade.
Despite some overtures from legislators about possibly returning to hand-marked, pencil-and-paper ballots, the state ultimately chose to go with a paper-and-digital system that uses a ballot marking device.
On Oct. 1, officials from the Richland County elections office — which will conduct the city's coming election — appeared before Columbia City Council to demonstrate the new voting system. The Nov. 5 municipal election will have three City Council seats on the ballot: the at-large seat currently held by Howard Duvall, the District 2 post currently held by Ed McDowell and the District 3 seat held by Moe Baddourah. There are a total of 10 candidates seeking the three seats.
"The concept of the poll has not changed," Richland County interim elections director Terry Graham said. "You come to the precinct, you show your ID, you come to the poll table and they check your name."
However, once the voter is checked-in, the process will be new.
Voters will receive a blank, white ballot card. They will then take that card and insert it into a digital touchscreen device. Voters will make their selections on the screen and, after reviewing them, hit "print card."
At that point, the paper ballot card will emerge from the machine, with the voter's selections — as well as a bar code — printed on it. Voters can then review their selections on the paper.
Then voters will proceed to another machine, where they will insert the ballot card. That machine will process the votes, and store the ballot cards in a bin. The bins will be locked and delivered back to county elections headquarters at the end of the night.
The city has published a YouTube video walking voters through the new process:
At the Oct. 1 presentation, some Council members immediately expressed anxiety.
"My only concern is that this hasn't been communicated to the public, and we are only a month away," said Baddourah, who is on the ballot next month. "That's not good. That's not really good, at all. I'm also concerned about senior citizens who are used to one system. This is a completely different system."
Graham noted to Council that the county has only recently received the new equipment.
"And you are testing them on us?" Baddourah exclaimed.
Graham noted that this year's municipal elections will be the first widespread use of the new system.
"Everybody across the state, the municipal elections are [among] the first elections where we are using this new system," Graham said.
According to state Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire, the new voting system was used in the state House District 84 special election on Oct. 1. He notes that there will be municipal elections in 40 counties on Nov. 5, all of which will be using the new system.
There could be some angst over the new system simply because of some past high-profile elections gaffes in Richland County.
The 2012 election was particularly troublesome, with many complaining of hourslong waits at the polls that day when, among other things, a contentious transportation penny tax referendum was on the ballot. And there was the incident in which more than 1,000 votes in the county weren’t counted in the November 2018 election. While the blunder didn’t affect the outcome of any races, it did lead to the eventual ouster of county elections director Rokey Suleman.
While the city has its own Municipal Election Commission that certifies the results of city races, the county actually conducts the elections.
Absentee voting for the city races opens Oct. 7 at the Richland County administration building on Hampton Street. Citizens can vote in-person absentee from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday each week leading up to the Nov. 5 election.
Because of the new voting system, at least one city candidate — Catherine Fleming Bruce, who is challenging McDowell in District 2 — thinks the city and county should offer expanded absentee voting opportunities.
"While the state and county election commissions are working to share information about the new machines and to provide opportunities to demonstrate their use, many voters are still unaware of this change," Bruce wrote in a letter to city and county officials. "Because of this, I would like to see opportunities for voter engagement maximized."
City Clerk to Council Erika Moore says citizens are invited to a demonstration of the new voting machines. It will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 15 on the first floor of Columbia City Hall.