Poll workers process bins of voting results at Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration headquarters Tuesday, November 5, 2019. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Attempts to make election night results more dynamic for Charleston County voters backfired Tuesday night when election officials uploaded real-time results to a free website but failed to say how many precincts were reporting.

Rather than issuing both the vote counts and the precinct totals, early updates in the county's municipal elections did not show how much of the vote — or how many precincts — were outstanding.

Instead, it appeared to suggest that some 90 percent of precincts had been counted — a vexing metric that falsely indicated final results were on the horizon when really the tallying had only just begun.

For a good part of the night, the real-time returns left campaigns and the media unsure of the night's winners. It wasn't until after 11 p.m. that comprehensive returns were finally uploaded.

In an attempt to stop the confusion, county election officials decided to remove the precinct percentage number from its election results website altogether.

Charleston County Election Director Joe Debney said he was trying to prevent campaigns from inadvertently and inaccurately claiming victory or defeat.

"When that 90 percent number came up, I went into the main room. Some people were calling races and I was calling campaigns to tell them we don't have 90 percent," Debney said Wednesday in the aftermath. 

Tyler Jones, whose political consulting firm has been doing work for Mike Seekings' Charleston mayoral campaign, said the online reporting created a brief moment of second-guessing.

"The website was reporting for a long time last night that we were at 51.31 percent, but saying 91 percent of the precincts were reporting," he said. "But with only like 4,000 votes, it didn't make any sense," Jones added. "Nobody knew what the turnout in the mayor's race was going to be." 

The election night hiccup in Charleston County revealed a wrinkle that could impact February's 2020 Democratic presidential primary, and has state election officials pledging to address it.  

What happened?

Debney said the confusion was an unintended consequence of the state's new voting system, which South Carolina voters were able to use for the first time in Tuesday's races.

When the state made the switch to a new system with paper ballots, it also came with an update on how absentee ballots are counted.

In the past, absentee ballots were treated as their own precinct and were unable to be linked back to the voting precinct where they were cast. It left campaigns and political parties without more precise information about where absentee voting was happening.

With the new voting system, they can be.

The problem, though, is that if one absentee ballot is cast in a precinct, it is counted as the percent for that precinct.

That means if at least one absentee ballot were cast in race with 100 precincts, early returns would suggest 100 percent of precincts were reporting even if only absentee ballots had been tabulated.

State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire confirmed the issue.

"We will take steps to make sure election results are clear in 2020, and that this new way of reporting doesn't confuse that issue," Whitmire said.

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For starters, county election offices will not be publishing their election results to their own unique websites. 

What about the website?

Debney said it was the first time Charleston County had used a website from Tenex Co. to share election night returns in real-time for local races. In the past, the local elections office uploaded PDFs of the returns in bursts, as it made sense to receive them.

Debney said the landing page used Tuesday was free. 

Whitmire, who reviewed the free website Wednesday, told The Post and Courier that results for the upcoming presidential primary will be live on the State Election Commission's election night reporting website.

Typically, county election offices will submit election results to that site for state, gubernatorial, federal and presidential elections.

Whitmire said Charleston's election night reporting may prompt the Election Commission to consider letting county election offices use their reporting website for their local races. 

Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said voters have gotten used to real-time data and real-time updates, but accuracy is always the ultimate goal.

"And it was almost like you had to be a political science professor to know where the results were," Knotts said.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.