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Editorial: Make changes now so paper ballots don't delay 2020 vote count in SC

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North Charleston voters waited in a 45-minute line to cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. A new voting system means absentee ballots will have to be hand-fed into scanners on Election Day, potentially delaying results.

Leroy Burnell/Staff

The upside to electronic voting is that it’s fast and easy to tabulate the votes. It was supposed to be much more reliable than paper ballots — that’s why South Carolina and so many other states went through an electronic-voting phase, which is now coming to an end — but it turned out not to be.

Critics say electronic voting systems are prone to error and susceptible to hacking. In fact, the errors usually are caused by poorly trained election workers, the hacking threat is a bit overblown, and there’s a long history of problems with paper ballots.

The biggest downside of electronic voting is that it’s a lot more expensive than paper ballots.

But this year, the State Election Commission managed to convert South Carolina to a paper-voting system that’s nearly as expensive as electronic, by purchasing a Rube Goldberg system that uses a computer to cast a ballot on paper.

So South Carolina approaches the 2020 state and presidential elections (and in the Lowcountry, the 2019 municipal elections) with a slightly less expensive, potentially more reliable voting system that likely will be much slower than we’re used to.

The paper ballots might not cause a problem at the polling places, because voters will deposit their machine-marked paper ballots into scanners that will read the results; at the end of the day, it should be a simple matter to tally the numbers from each scanner. As The Post and Courier’s Schuyler Kropf reports, the potential problem comes with absentee votes.

Under S.C. law, election officials can’t start feeding the absentee ballots into the scanners until 9 a.m. on Election Day. This caused occasional problems in the past, as absentee voting became more popular: About a quarter of S.C. voters, 500,000 people, cast absentee ballots in the 2016 presidential election. It was manageable, though, because nearly three-quarters of absentee ballots were cast in person, on voting machines; the votes just sat in the machines, secured, until Election Day.

But election officials say even in-person absentee ballots will have to be sealed in individual envelopes this year, potentially quadrupling the number of ballots to be opened and scanned on Election Day. So it’s easy to imagine how officials in one or several counties could be unsealing envelopes and feeding ballots into scanners well into the night, or even the next day.

Now, to be clear: Having to wait a few hours, or even an extra day or two, to see election results wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Frankly, we’ve all become way too impatient about … everything.

At the same time, though, there’s no reason for delay when there’s no reason for delay. And this is an example of there being no reason for delay.

As long as election officials aren’t allowed to run the numbers before the polls close on Election Day, there’s no reason we shouldn’t allow them to start opening envelopes and feeding absentee ballots into scanners the day before Election Day — or even a few days early. In fact, we don’t see any reason not to let in-person absentee voters go ahead and feed their ballots into scanning devices, just like Election Day voters will do at the polling places.

The Legislature has time to make these changes when it returns to work in January. And it should.

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