Perhaps the most extreme case of voter wait times Tuesday unfolded on Johns Island, where the final vote was cast just before 10 p.m. — almost three hours after polls closed.
Frustrated Johns Island residents took to Facebook to complain. Election officials cited a lack of manpower: Of the 14 poll workers trained to work at St. Johns High School, only nine showed up.
The absence of the five created delays there and also delayed the county's report on unofficial results, county elections director Joe Debney said. The Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration did not tabulate final results until early Wednesday.
"Once a location starts getting behind, it’s almost like you can’t catch up," he said. "We did everything we could possibly do. We even called those workers who did not show up and said, 'Please, show up.'"
Of the 800 hired to work Election Day across Charleston County, only 600 showed.
"The only place I’ve ever seen that happen, is Charleston County," Debney said. "And I don’t have an explanation for that."
'Vanguards of democracy'
S.C. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said the issues in Charleston County were severe and unique in the state.
In Berkeley County, only five of the 375 scheduled workers failed to show, according to Elections Director Adam Hammons. Dorchester County also only had five no shows among its 290 poll workers.
On Wednesday, Debney wondered if the country's low unemployment rate played a role. The state pays poll workers $135 and poll managers $195 — flat payments that include two to three hours of training and up to 18 hours of work on Election Day.
Debney said he hopes the state increases those amounts, and Whitmire agreed. When polls remain open past 9 p.m., as is often the case in big elections, workers no longer make the minimum wage.
"Those 600 in Charleston, if they didn't show up yesterday, we wouldn't have an election," Whitmire said. "Poll managers are truly the vanguards of democracy."
Berkeley County pays each of its poll workers an additional $25 as an incentive to get them to work, Hammons said.
Dorchester County Elections Director Todd Billman doubted if an extra $25 would make a difference, though. "Most of our people who work it are passionate about the electoral process," he said. "They're not even passionate about about party politics. They’re passionate about elections."
Long lines and delays at polling places were seen well beyond South Carolina Tuesday.
Many states with aging voting machines saw delays, Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, told Reuters. Officials in Philadelphia and North Carolina reported scattered voting machine outages. Some voters had to cast provisional ballots.
In Charleston County, machines at five of 95 polling locations had battery issues, Debney said. In Beaufort County, where results were not posted until 4 a.m., a few machines also suffered power and battery issues, elections director Marie Smalls said.
South Carolina's electronic machines date back to 2004 and have reached the end of their 15-year lifespan, Whitmire said.
On Wednesday, Shaundra Scott, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, called on the state to replace the outdated machines.
"Long wait-times, voting machines failing, voting machines changing votes — this is not what democracy looks like, and the citizens of South Carolina deserve better," Scott said. "This might not be the typical type of voter suppression we see in other parts of the country, but it’s suppression nonetheless."
The state commission has called on state lawmakers to approve $60 million for new machines before the 2020 presidential election.
Vote early, avoid lines
In this election, 54.7 percent of eligible South Carolinians voted — the highest midterm election turnout since 1994, Whitmire said. When turnout goes up, long lines often follow suit.
In Berkeley County, polls did not close on Daniel Island until about 10 p.m., Hammons said. And in Dorchester County, the final poll in North Charleston closed about 8:30 p.m., Billman said.
One way voters can avoid long lines is to vote early via an absentee ballot. It's an option that has grown more popular after each recent election, Whitmire said.
In 2014, the state counted 157,278 absentee ballots, about 12 percent of that year's total vote count. This year, 288,373 — almost 17 percent — voted absentee.
In Charleston County, absentee voting totals rose from 6,800 in 2014 to more than 39,000 this year. About 29,000 people voted early in person.