South Carolina's new voting system that emphasizes paper-based vote casting will be in place statewide for the Nov. 5 municipal elections — earlier than officials originally anticipated.
After a first run in a special election to fill an Aiken seat in the Statehouse on Oct. 1, the $52 million upgrade will officially replace an aging system that left the Palmetto State as one of only four states that didn't give voters a paper ballot of their cast preferences.
"Having a paper-based system is the standard of today and is the prevailing opinion of election security experts that any system should have a paper record, and we have that now," said Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire. "It gives election officials confidence that we have that and we hope it gives voters confidence."
Voters will get a blank piece of paper upon entering a polling place that will serve as their ballot. They will insert that paper into a ballot marking device and, using a touch screen, select candidates like they have in the state for 15 years.
What's different in the new system is after the touch screen allows a voter to review their choices, they must select "print," which prints their ballot onto the piece of paper. Then they take the marked paper and feed it into a scanner, which tabulates the vote.
It also internally records an image of the ballot and drops the printed ballot into a locked box under the scanner.
Most important for voters to realize, Whitmire said, is that the paper ballot that comes printed out of the touch screen is not a receipt they can take with them. It is used for auditing purposes and must be dropped into the locked box for the vote to count.
Having a full year of elections with the new system will be entirely beneficial before "the eyes of the nation are upon South Carolina" with the Feb. 29, 2020, presidential primary, Whitmire said.
When the state originally issued its request for proposals in December, it had a target date of Jan. 1, 2020, in mind for the system to be in place. But the rollout of the new system went smoothly and the new systems are ready ahead of schedule.
Not only do the new machines replace an aging system, Whitmire said, they also provide an increased level of security in printing the ballot onto a piece of paper and allowing the voter to review their choices before it is officially counted.
No part of the system connects to the internet in any way, which greatly decreases cybersecurity and hacking concerns.
Despite assurances from election security experts, some voting rights advocates still have concerns about the safety of the system. Christie McCoy-Lawrence, co-president of the state's League of Women Voters, previously told The Post and Courier the group would have preferred a simple paper ballot system — even though experts say this often raises instances where election officials are forced to question voter intent.
“We think it was a mistake,” McCoy-Lawrence said. “Putting a computer between the voter and his ballot is not necessary.”
In Dorchester County, election commission director Todd Billman and his staff will get more experience with the new systems than they normally would in an off-year election. County Council last week approved the addition of two referendum questions to fund a combined $68 million in renovations and construction to parks and libraries. This will force the county to open 15 more polling locations than originally planned, Billman said.
"It allows us to make sure we have the proper processes and procedures set in place, and gets voters familiar with the system," he said. "Once you've voted on it one time, the average voter will feel comfortable voting on it from there on out."
The new systems, which will be delivered sometime this week, will require Billman to double the time spent on training staffers even though the new system is somewhat similar to what's been used in the past.
"These are the latest and greatest as far as equipment goes, and we're going to make sure our poll managers feel very comfortable with the process and can help voters if they have questions on how system works."