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South Carolina Attorney General Asked for Opinion on Emergency Ballots PDF  | Print |  Email
By SC Progressive Network   
October 17, 2008
At the urging of the SC Progressive Network, state legislators have requested that SC Attorney General Henry McMaster issue an opinion on the state statute regulating emergency ballots at polling places.

"After the failure of many of the voting computers in Horry County during the January 19, 2008 Republican presidential primary, where many voters were turned away from the polls, we found that no law requires precincts to have emergency paper ballots," said Network Director Brett Bursey. Horry County election official Lisa Bourcier reported that "80-90 percent" of the county's more than 300 machines malfunctioned. Voters in many of the county's 118 precincts were told to come back later, on a cold and rainy day, because emergency paper ballots ran out shortly after the polls opened and the machines failed to operate.

Rep. Tracy Edge, a McCain campaign official, reported that his mother-in-law was only the 12th person to vote in her precinct, and that she was given a blank piece of paper because they didn't have emergency ballots. State Election Commission spokesperson Chris Whitmire was widely quoted as telling people to vote on "paper towels" if necessary.

Section (A) of 7-13-430 of the state law used to read: "There must be provided for each voting place where voting machines are used as many ballots as are equal to ten percent of the registered qualified voters at the voting place." The statute was amended in 2000 to read: "There must be provided for each voting place where voting machines are used a number of ballots not to exceed ten percent of the registered qualified voters at the voting place."

Sen. Phil Leventis, along with Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Rep. James Smith, requested that the Attorney General issue an opinion on the statute. "Our switch to electronic voting statewide in 2004 accentuates the need for a back-up system of paper ballots," Leventis said. "The current statute has no minimum number of emergency ballots required, and does not protect our right to cast a ballot in the event of machine failure." Leventis was opposed to the state's purchase of the touch-screen computers that do not produce a durable, and voter-verifiable, paper ballot that can be used to verify a recount.

Beaufort County's early voting was stymied on Oct. 6 when its computers failed to come online due to an incorrect password. The problem was detected Oct. 4 and not resolved until the afternoon of the 6th. The county blamed the State Election Commission for providing the wrong password. The SEC said Beaufort County election officials were to blame. "It doesn't really matter whose fault it is if the machines fail," Leventis said, "the voters lose."

Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler recently called for emergency paper ballots to be used in case of long lines to vote on machines. Maryland, one of only three states (Georgia and Delaware) using paperless computer voting machines like those in South Carolina, has decided to dump the computers in 2010 and switch to an optical scan system that uses paper ballots that can be hand marked if the machines malfunction, or the electricity is off.

In Pennsylvania, voting rights advocates are pushing the Secretary of State to change his ruling that emergency ballots will not be used unless all the machines in a precinct fail, urging the paper ballots be distributed if half the machines aren't working.

After the Horry County machine failure, State Republican Party Chair Kayton Dawson told CNN that he was confident of a "full and fair count" and noted that "there is always a back-up in case of a machine malfunction and a ballot can't be cast."

Leventis said, "Actually, there is no mandated back-up in case of machine failures, and that is why we have taken this matter to the Attorney General."

"We hope that the Attorney General finds that this absurdly worded statute does not provide any protection for voters," SC Common Cause Director John Crangle said, " and that he will take the matter immediately to the State Supreme Court for a ruling that protects our right to vote."

"This Nov. 4 we expect to see record numbers of voters," Bursey said. "If machines fail, as they have in the past, we shouldn't have to rely on paper towels to insure that every vote counts."
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