Voting vitriol: Machines' election performance criticized at forum

Duncan Buell, University of South Carolina computer science and engineering professor (center), said South Carolina uses the identical voting system that has been discredited in Ohio. He joined Vic Rawl (left) and state Democratic Party Executive Committe

Almost 100 people packed into North Charleston City Hall on Thursday night to hear whether crucial cogs in their democracy -- South Carolina's voting machines -- are working right.

The consensus seemed to be no, they weren't, but there was less certainty about what to do about it.

The Charleston County Democratic Party arranged the forum on the electronic voting machines, which several leaders have called into question after last year's shocking primary win by unknown Democratic Senate candidate Alvin Greene against former judge and Charleston County Councilman Vic Rawl, a former circuit judge.

Rawl, one of the panelists, said this issue isn't about him but instead about the sanctity of the principle of one-man one-vote.

"From every expert I talked to, that (primary result) was an aberration," Rawl said. "If that aberration was contrived or accidental, we seriously need to get rid of that machine."

State Democratic Party Executive Committee member Susan Yarborough Smith began her remarks by paraphrasing Communist leader Josef Stalin, saying, "The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything."

For six years, the state's voters have used about 12,000 iVotronic touch-screen machines made by Election Systems & Software, a Nebraska-based company.

Frank Heindel, a Charleston businessman who has launched his own investigation of the machines, noted there were thousands of error messages on Charleston County machines in the 2010 elections. Also, he noted that a different error led to 1,389 extra votes in statewide races in Colleton County.

State Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, said Colleton's result "has the makings of a great Southern novel, but that's not what an election should be. They should be as bland as possible."

Duncan A. Buell, a professor with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of South Carolina, said his biggest concern is that the machines do not have a separate tally that can be used to check the accuracy of the results.

"We have nothing to audit," he said, adding that five other states also use electronic machines with no paper trail.

Even before Rawl's loss, the machines -- and the proprietary software that makes them work -- had been criticized by software experts, private citizens -- even members of S.C. League of Women Voters.

Leventis said he also has had long-standing concerns about the machines.

"I'm not really a fan of conspiracy theories ... but I am a fan of the blithering idiot theory," he said, adding that the iVotronic machines are too complex and he favors an optical scanning system.

However, Leventis and Sen. Raymond Cleary, R-Georgetown, said the Legislature won't do anything unless it is pressured to. Cleary noted lawmakers are satisfied with the outcome of their own elections: They won.

"We have to get more people to focus on the problem -- and more people aware of what the problem is," Leventis said.

Cleary, one of the few Republicans in the room, said he is interested in hearing about the problem and working with Leventis on a bipartisan solution. He said asking the Legislative Audit Council to investigate the voting system's reliability "is not a bad first step."

But not everyone was convinced the issue deserves a high priority, especially when the state plans to replace the machines in the next several years in any case.

Steve Skardon, director of the Palmetto Project and co-chair of a state committee that helped select to the iVotronic system, sat silently in the audience. He later said he didn't hear anything to change his belief that these machines are safe, secure and accurate.

"It was a one-sided presentation loaded with misinformation," he said.

No one from the State Election Commission -- or even county election commissions -- attended and spoke in defense of the machines. Charleston County Democratic Chair George Tempel said no State Election Commission officials were invited.

Skardon has noted the state's earlier voting systems were much more unreliable and led to the loss of at least 38,000 ballots in the state's 2000 presidential race.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.