If you were a Charleston County election office worker, could you open 83 paper envelopes per minute and feed those ballots into a counting machine at a rate of 5,000 votes per hour?

For 12 hours straight?

Nobody could. It's impossible.

But that's the election nightmare that awaits South Carolina in next year's presidential turnout.

And unless lawmakers and officials do something about it soon, the winners of the state's closest races likely won't be determined until long after most everyone has gone to bed.

Demonstration ballot (copy) (copy)

Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the SC Election Commission, shows a demonstration ballot printed by the touchscreen device that will be used on paper ballots. Mike Fitts/Staff

The issue is the new hands-on, labor-intensive method of counting absentee votes that resulted from the switch to paper ballots.

Under the old computer-based system, voters cast absentee ballots on a machine and those numbers would be digitally tabulated quickly on Election Day.

Under the new paper ballot system, absentee ballots filled out in the 30 days before the election will get marked, sealed in envelopes and kept under wraps until 9 a.m. on Election Day, when state law says the counting may begin.

The problem arises based on the growing popularity of absentee voting.

In the 2016 presidential election year, an estimated 500,000 people voted absentee statewide, or about 25 percent of the total turnout.

The numbers included 60,000 votes from Charleston County, 55,000 votes from Richland County, and 30,000 from Greenville County. Statewide in 2016, the absentee ballots issued broke down as follows: 72 percent cast in-person; 28 percent sent by mail.

If the same number of people vote absentee in Charleston next year, local election staffers would have to open up one secure envelope, unfold the ballot, and run it through a tabulation machine at a rate of 5,000 votes per hour if they hope to finish within 12 hours, or around 9 p.m.

By sheer volume, it could take well past Election Day to complete, meaning some key races next year (See: Charleston's 1st Congressional District seat) may be left unsettled long after the polls close — even into the next day.

"Based on the numbers that we generate for absentee voting, there is no way that we can quickly report absentee numbers on election night," warned Charleston County elections office Executive Director Joe Debney.

"We have created a problem by having chosen to get the voting system that we currently have," added Duncan Buell, of the Richland County elections board.

"We have a new way of voting, and it's old laws," said S.C. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.

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Even under the former faster system, there were counting inefficiencies and delay. In the 2018 1st District congressional race, Democrat Joe Cunningham's win over Republican Katie Arrington wasn't declared until after 2 a.m. 

There are several solutions on the table, including making South Carolina a true early voting state, where anyone may cast a ballot for any reason weeks ahead of Election Day. Or allowing the ballot count to begin on the Monday before Election Day, instead of that Tuesday morning. 

An third option could be to require challenges of in-person absentee ballots be made at the time the voter cast it.

Any of these changes will require action by the Legislature.

State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, who sits on the Senate's election laws body, said he plans to work with the State Election Commission beginning in January on solutions.

In the short term, voting officials don't see any serious problems surfacing during the upcoming Nov. 5 municipal elections around the state, or with the February Democratic presidential primary. Turnouts in these elections are expected to be manageable.

But the June 2020 state party primaries could be troublesome if the Legislature doesn't act by May, and the November 2020 general election — which traditionally produces the highest turnout because there's a  presidential race — could become a counting mess with as many as 600,000 votes, possibly more, cast absentee.

For now, that's what awaits state voters after spending more than $50 million on new paper ballot machines for the peace of mind to know their vote isn’t getting changed by a hacker in Ukraine.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.