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County election officials say the state's voting machines need to be replaced soon, as the legislature continues to debate what type of voting system they want. Lauren Petracca/Staff

MYRTLE BEACH — The debate over what type of new voting machines South Carolina should purchase may be vexing lawmakers in the Statehouse, but many county election officials have reached one consensus: the state needs new polling equipment and soon. 

The 15-year-old computers that roughly 3.1 million registered voters currently use are costing tens of thousands of dollars to maintain, a burden that falls onto the state's 46 counties.

And at least a few local election directors worry the aging equipment could result in longer lines at polling places if the Legislature doesn't find the money for a new statewide system this year.

Parts for the current computerized voting system somtimes have to be recycled from other machines, they pointed out. And even if a few machines go down, it could take longer for South Carolinians to cast their votes at precincts, especially in a presidential election year like 2020.   

"We can do it, but we will likely have less machines out there," said Conway Belangia, Greenville County's election director, who handles 10 percent of the state's registered voters. 

Election directors from some of the state's largest counties said they were hopeful before the legislative session started that lawmakers would finally find the money to replace the roughly 13,000 computers statewide. But as the year drags on, they worry the Legislature is being bombarded with other demands for where that money could be spent. 

"Some legislators don't realize that we need it now," said David Alford, Florence County's election director. "We've been beating the drum on this." 

S.C. Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said he has become frustrated that the issue has not gained much traction in the Legislature as lawmakers grapple with education reform and other thorny issues. 

"We're cruising toward March now. The train is leaving the station," McElveen said.

The State Election Commission requested $60 million to buy a new generation of equipment this year.

Gov. Henry McMaster's executive budget called for only $5 million to replace the aging machines that were purchased in 2004. But it's yet to be seen what the House and Senate will actually dedicate to the cause. 

Election staff from throughout the state met at the annual conference of the South Carolina Association of Registration and Election Officials in Myrtle Beach last week, where equipment companies hawked the newest generation of voting machines. 

During training sessions, officials were told that the state was likely to seek a system that includes some type of paper ballot.

But what that ballot looks like and how it is marked remains a point of debate in Columbia.

A small number of lawmakers and interest groups including the League of Women Voters continue to push for hand-marked ballots that can be fed through a scanner located in each precinct.

They believe that is preferable to a newer computer system that prints a ballot after voters cast ballots on a touch screen.

The refocused attention on paper ballots also comes at a time when election officials across the country have become more concerned about electronic interference with elections. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security informed more than 20 states after the 2016 elections that people outside the country had tried to hack voter registration files or public election sites.

The advocates for hand-marked ballots say the system is more secure and more accurate during an audit or a recount. Even more, they believe it is less likely to bust the state's budget. 

Duncan Buell, an expert in voting machines from the University of South Carolina who is advising the League of Women Voters, provided cost estimates for new voting systems based on bids that were received in other states including Iowa, Ohio and Michigan.

The price of the new computerized systems, Buell told lawmakers, is likely to cost more than $60 million. But he placed the cost of the hand-marked ballot equipment at less than $30 million.

"We're talking about half the cost for hand-marked paper and a scanner in each precinct," Buell said.

The State Election Commission is already soliciting offers for new equipment from the small number of companies in the industry. Those bids will be submitted by March.

Then a panel of election officials, selected by the management team at the Election Commission, will be charged with choosing how South Carolinians cast their votes for the next decade or more.

Those panelists have yet to be chosen, said Chris Whitmire, the spokesman for the commission. 

McElveen is one of several lawmakers who wants to pass a bill requiring the state to choose a hand-marked balloting system. He thinks the paper ballots are more reliable.  

Belangia, who has managed Greenville's elections for 26 years, believes the state and the counties would benefit from an analysis of how much each voting system will cost over the next 10 to 12 years.

That study could include, not just the sticker price for the equipment, he believes, but how much it will cost to print ballots, refurbish computers and train the election staff to use the new systems. 

Several of the county voting directors said it wasn't until a few years after the current machines were purchased that they were hit with licensing and maintenance fees. Now, Greenville is paying around $90,000 a year to keep the machines functioning. 

"The more turning parts, the more drives there are, the more maintenance you have," he said. 

Charleston County's elections director Joseph Debney said he'd prefer to see the state opt for the hand-marked ballots. But he believes the computer-printed system would be just as secure if the right procedures are put in place. 

"Either way we go, it's going to be beneficial for voters," he said. 

Ultimately, the county election officials say the most important priority is ensuring people can trust that their votes are being counted and tallied correctly.

"Whatever system it is, we will use to the best of our ability," said Alford, the Florence County director.

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.