COLUMBIA — South Carolina voters should be casting ballots on new machines in the next statewide election.
The chief budget writer for the state House of Representatives said Friday he expects the Legislature to approve the state election agency's $60 million request next year.
Dying batteries, temperamental touchscreens and power cord failures contributed to delays across the state Tuesday. Officials say the new system will include not only the latest technology and security but also old-school paper. The current system provides no paper record.
"Obviously, we need to make sure when South Carolinians go out to vote, they have a secure voting system that ensures each vote's counted and secure, and there's a paper trail to document those votes," House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, told The Post and Courier.
The money will likely come from a $177 million surplus left over from the fiscal year that ended in June.
White doesn't anticipate opposition to using a chunk of that to upgrade the state's antiquated voting equipment.
"We need to get it done," White said. "I've gotten a lot of calls from (other legislators) saying, 'Hey, we've got to do something about these machines.'"
State election officials have been asking legislators for six years to set aside money for new machines, knowing the expected life span of the system bought in 2004 is 15 years — in other words, the end is near. So far, they've squirreled away $5 million.
The estimated cost of replacing South Carolina's 13,000 touchscreen machines has risen as they got older. While the machines themselves are 14 years old, the technology in them is even older.
The agency intends to buy a new system in time for the 2020 presidential primaries, as long as legislators provide the money, state Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said.
"We're pleading. Please fund a new round of voting equipment," said Richland County elections director Rokey Suleman II.
Going into the 2020 elections with two-decade-old technology would be like "going into an IndyCar race driving a 1950s Ford," Suleman said.
Election officials stress that the current system works. But it's costly to maintain.
Batteries were "dying left and right" on Tuesday, Suleman said.
Replacement batteries for the cartridges poll workers use to activate a voter's display cost $16 each, while batteries for the touchscreens themselves are $100 each.
"We're seeing a lot of electrical chords chasing and fraying," Suleman said. "We’re bandaging the machines together. They’re still accurate and counting the votes properly. But the machines are just at the end of their life."
Calibration issues are also becoming more common.
If a screen's display is out of alignment, a voter's touch may select the wrong candidate. Voters catch the error right away or in the final review screen, before they hit "confirm" to actually record their selections. So there are safeguards, but it does cause voters to question the machines, Suleman said.
Alignment issues generally happen when machines are jostled around during delivery to the precincts.
They contributed to lines Tuesday morning while technicians went from precinct to precinct to fix problems. But once a machine was re-calibrated, it was fine for the rest of the day, he said.
It's just a matter of old technology, much like the first tablets and smartphones had to be periodically re-calibrated by touching points on the screen, Whitmire said.
Voters probably recognize that the touchscreens recording their election choices "don't react like the touchscreen they use on a normal, everyday basis like on an iPhone. You have to hold your finger longer. You have to be more deliberative on how you touch it," he said.
Exactly what the new system will look like or how many machines will be bought is unknown. The agency will request bids once the Legislature provides the money.
"It will give us a dependable system for years to come. It will give a paper record of every voter’s ballot for an additional level of security that allows us to conduct audits of that paper," Whitmire said.