Legislators advocate for new voting system

Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, leads a discussion Tuesday in his Senate office on the need for replacing South Carolina's voting system. Other legislators are Reps. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia; Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia; and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia. Seanna Adcox/Staff 

COLUMBIA — Returning to paper ballots may be the solution for eliminating lines and ensuring all votes are counted correctly, a group of South Carolina legislators said Tuesday.

While there's wide support in the Legislature for replacing South Carolina's 13,000 antiquated voting machines before the 2020 elections, what the next system should look like is up for debate. 

State election officials are seeking $60 million in the upcoming budget for a new system with a paper component for auditing. The touchscreen machines South Carolina voters have used since 2004 provide no paper record.

"It's shocking to me we have no paper trail," said Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia. 

She was among several legislators Tuesday who said paper printouts won't suffice. They advocate going old school with paper ballots.

"We don't want a machine auditing a machine," said Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter. "We want something tangible." 

State election officials plan to request bids for a new system next year, as long as the Legislature puts the replacement money in the state budget. The request would include requirements for a paper trail.

But legislators may get more directly involved by telling the agency precisely what type of system to buy. 

Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, contends the Legislature shouldn't give the agency a $60 million blank check when paper-based options could cost far less. 

The system could involve paper ballots being fed into scanners to tally the results. That allows for a check of the actual ballot cast if there are any discrepancies or a recount is necessary. And voting won't be limited by the number of working machines at a precinct, he said. 

"We need to make sure people are not waiting in line," said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia. All options, including mail-in ballots, should be explored, he said.  

The bi-partisan group wants voters to have input into how they'll be voting in the future. They intend to pre-file bills in December in hopes of jumpstarting hearings in the session that begins in January.  

"We want to have a fairly called election," Finlay said. "People can stand winning and losing. They can't stand feeling cheated." 

The state Election Commission has been asking legislators for six years to set aside money for new machines, knowing the expected life span of the system in place since 2004 is 15 years. So far, they've squirreled away $5 million.

An election spokesman could not be reached for comment Tuesday. 

Election officials have stressed the current system works, but it's costly to maintain. 

Dying batteries, temperamental touchscreens and power cord failures contributed to delays across the state last week.  

The House's chief budget writer, Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, told The Post and Courier last week the money for replacing the machines will likely come from a $177 million surplus left over from the fiscal year that ended in June. 

McElveen said the money could also come from the state's share of the nearly $1.5 billion winning Mega Millions lottery ticket sold in South Carolina last month.

Either source represents a one-time infusion of cash that can revamp the voting system without requiring a cut elsewhere in the budget, he said. 

"This is an issue we can fix pretty easily," he said.  

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Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.