COLUMBIA — Ballots cast by 1,040 Richland County voters were not counted in last November's election — another voting mishap in the state's capital county.
While the missing ballots did not affect the outcome of any races and accounted for less than 1 percent of the 142,805 votes cast in the county, the failure to count all votes damages public trust, experts said.
"It's sends a very bad message that people cast a vote, and it might not matter," Duncan Buell, a University of South Carolina professor who researches voting machines, said Thursday. "This is a big deal."
Richland County missed 832 in-person absentee votes from two voting machines that malfunctioned and 208 votes from two machines at two precincts that were closed incorrectly, Richland County Elections Director Rokey Suleman said.
County election officials thought tallies from all four machines were included in totals sent to the state, he said.
Suleman said the county's vote-counting process is unacceptable and being changed. "We are very troubled about what happened," he said. "We're not going to allow this to happen again."
Another county failed to count all votes in November. Bamberg County missed 402 absentee votes because of human error, state Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said. The missing Bamberg ballots did not change the outcome of any election, he said.
For Richland County, the mishap adds to a series of problems with elections over the past eight years. The county certified incorrect election results in 2010 after 1,100 votes were not counted. In 2012, Richland County failed to deploy enough machines that led to excessively long lines and missed the state's vote certification deadline. And the county needed state help after missing a recount deadline in the 2016 primary.
Richland County has gone through four elections directors since the problems began. Suleman, who ran elections in Washington, D.C., before working overseas, was hired in 2017.
"It's an ongoing issue there in Richland County," Whitmire said. "Better control could have prevented the errors (in November)."
S.C. Election Commission officials found voting discrepancies during a routine audit and first informed county officials late November. There will be a record of the missing ballots. However, since the results have been certified, the state cannot change the tallies in official records.
With the missing absentee votes, a technician from voting machine maker Election Systems & Software was supposed to upload results on Election Day from 10 machines that malfunctioned, Suleman said.
But after the voting discrepancy was discovered, election officials realized the technician retrieved data from just eight of the machines. Flashcards with uncounted votes were found in two machines.
A county elections employee was not monitoring the technician during the entire time. Election Systems & Software said its technician followed directions from election workers on which machines needed work.
From now on, the county election office will have a staff person oversee technicians and mark machines as data is pulled, and tallies from each machine will be put on separate flashcards, said Suleman, who included the recommendations in a report shared with the county election board and state Election Commission.
With other missing votes, county election workers thought they retrieved data from six voting machines that were not shut down properly on Election Day, but a miscommunication led to tallies being left on the machines from two precincts, Suleman said.
The county will start ensuring results are pulled from all machines, he said.
Jane Emerson, interim Richland County Board of Voter Registration and Elections chairwoman, said it appears a series of small errors led to the missing ballots.
"We're taking it very, very seriously," Emerson said. "I can understand that people might continue to have concerns. We are working to get to the bottom of these issues."