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After Charleston absentee ballots found in Maryland, SC considers cutting ties with printer

Democratic Presidential Primary (copy) (copy)

South Carolina election officials could have counties cut ties to a Minnesota printer after about 20 Charleston County absentee ballots were found in Maryland this week. Brad Nettles/ Staff

South Carolina election officials could have counties cut ties to a Minnesota printer after about 20 Charleston County absentee ballots were found in Maryland this week.

The ready-to-mail ballots have since made their way to Charleston-area voters, state and county election officials said, but it is just the latest problem with SeaChange Print Innovations, which prints and mails absentee ballots for 13 S.C. counties.

Some Greenville County voters received the wrong absentee ballots this year when the Democratic presidential primary and a special election for sheriff were held 10 days apart, S.C. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said.

Some Charleston County voters received ballots that were folded in a way that could make them tougher to read by scanning machines, he said.

The latest mishap has left the state election agency with little confidence that SeaChange can handle the surge in absentee voting this year as people practice social distancing to avoid contracting the coronavirus, Whitmire said.

With less than three weeks before the June 9 primary for state and local seats, South Carolina has already issued 20 percent more absentee ballots than the total for the 2018 primary, he said. The general election, featuring a divisive presidential race, is expected to generate a record in absentee voting.

"We're not getting a warm and fuzzy feeling that they can handle this," Whitmire said. "We are actively seeking sustainable solutions."

The state could keep SeaChange from working in the state after the primary or at least discourage new counties from using the firm for the general election, he said.

More heavily populated S.C. counties hire outside firms to handle printing and mailing of their large volume of absentee ballots, Whitmire said.

Other S.C. counties that use SeaChange include Berkeley, Dorchester, Beaufort, Horry, Greenville, Spartanburg, Aiken and Orangeburg. 

Doug Sunde, SeaChange's vice president for election services, declined comment Wednesday on South Carolina possibly banning his company. 

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Maryland election officials ran into their own problems with SeaChange, learning over the weekend that the printer failed to mail hundreds of thousands of ballots to Baltimore voters for that state's June 2 primary, The Baltimore Sun reported

U.S. Postal Service trucks brought the ballots to Maryland where they were mailed. That's when the Charleston ballots were discovered.

Sunde said he received a different explanation of what happened from the Postal Service but declined to elaborate. (Update: SeaChange CEO Wendi Breuer said Thursday that a tray of Charleston ballots were accidentally picked up and included in the Maryland shipment. The ballots were spotted soon after they arrived and were mailed to Charleston from Baltimore. No voter failed to get their absentee ballot, she said. The same was true after an uploading error was discovered for Greenville County ballot earlier this year, Breuer said.)

Joe Debney, Charleston County’s elections director, said about 20 voters received their ballots within a couple days after they were diverted from SeaChange's operation in Florida to Baltimore.

"There was no lag for that, even though the box went to Baltimore,” he said.

The company knew who to address and mail the ballots to because Charleston County does what Debney described as “a daily data drop to them” of who has been cleared to receive a ballot.

Charleston County has been dealing with SeaChange for some time, saying the original contract started when a different company ran the printing and mailing operation before SeaChange bought it.

Debney said Charleston is ready to go with another printing and mailing business that is located in-state, though not specifically because of this misstep. Using a South Carolina firm would help speed sending out ballots.

“We want to go with an in-state printer and we’ve been wanting to for years,” he said.

Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.

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