Voting machine scrutiny: Council of Governments agrees to ask Legislature to investigate after problems plagued several counties

Since 2004, South Carolina voters have used this type of iVotronic touch-screen voting machine.

A few dozen of the Lowcountry's elected officials appear concerned enough about South Carolina's voting machines to urge the Legislature to look into them.

Frank Heindel, a Charleston businessman, has spent months investigating the machines' performance, and he outlined his findings Monday to the board of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments.

Board members agreed to prepare a resolution asking the General Assembly to have the Legislative Audit Council probe the machines.

Heindel talked about recent problems with voting tabulations in Colleton, Lancaster and Richmond counties.

"It's not all the same problem," he said. "There's a variety of different things going wrong."

Heindel pointed to a mix-up last November in Richland County, where 355 ballots were not counted in one precinct; 772 weren't counted in another.

State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire confirmed that problem, which he said stemmed from human error.

"The errors wouldn't have changed the results, but the Richland County Election Commission certified incorrect results, which is not good. It's not acceptable," Whitmire said. "The State Election Commission is working to provide the county with some tools to detect those errors and some improved procedures to correct those errors."

Not all COG members bought into Heindel's argument. James Island Mayor Bill Woolsey said Heindel's presentation was biased, and Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor questioned whether a resolution to the General Assembly would be proper protocol.

But most of COG's board of directors brushed aside such concerns in favor of urging the Legislature to act.

Berkeley County Councilman Tim Callanan was one of several to comment on the 12,000 iVotronic touch-screen machines that the state uses -- machines made by Election Systems & Software of Nebraska.

"They outsource the programming of this cartridge. There's no method to check the programming of cartridges, so there's no way to audit it," he said.

While election officials and others said the machines are a vast improvement on the state's previous voting methods, a growing number have questioned whether the iVotronic machines are reliable and whether their results can be double-checked for accuracy.

Whitmire said the machines are reliable and can be double-checked, but he also welcomed any new investigation into them. "It is important in elections to have transparency and for voters to feel like their vote counts -- and to know that their vote counts," he said. "I think audits can only help serve that purpose."

Given the state's serious budget crunch, state lawmakers aren't expected to find money to replace the voting system anytime soon. The price tag for switching to a new system statewide has been pegged at $30 million or more. The machines already are a bit more than halfway through their expected life

Heindel suggested that state and county election officials could do more to audit the machines until they're replaced. "We've basically given the keys to our elections to a private company with little or no oversight," he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.