COLUMBIA — Some voters waited four or more hours in Richland County on Tuesday, as GOP and Democratic party leaders complained of broken machines amid an expected record Election Day turnout.
Party officials said waits have been by far the worst in the county that is home to the state capital, and delays have depended on the precinct. It took several hours to vote at precincts in northeast Richland County. Across the river in Lexington County, voters reported no problems at their polling sites.
The leaders of both parties have blamed the delays on broken voting machines. State Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian also said machines weren’t adequately distributed among the precincts.
Under state law, local governments are supposed to provide one machine per 250 registered voters.
“For some reason, they’re not complying,” said Harpootlian, who also questioned whether the machines were adequately tested before Election Day. “I don’t know who screwed the pooch on this, but there’s no question that most of these precincts don’t have near the machines.”
GOP Chairman Chad Connelly blamed a combination of poor planning and inefficiencies, with some workers processing voters faster than others, colliding with heavy turnout.
“People are trying to get out and do a basic American freedom,” he said. “This is the kind of thing we’ve got to get right. I saw people get discouraged and get out of line. That’s a shame.”
Brett Bursey of the Progressive Network said voters calling a toll-free hotline reported six-hour waits at one Richland County precinct and five hours at another. But there were problems elsewhere too, he said, with voters at a precinct each in Charleston and Florence also reporting several-hour waits. Bursey blamed the state, saying counties don’t have the money to replace failing machines.
State election officials said anyone in line by 7 p.m. would be allowed to vote. Counties are responsible for purchasing additional machines if needed and testing them to ensure they’re working, said Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.
“We waited four hours,” said Tasha Martin, 32, a counselor voting at Ridge View High School in northeast Columbia. “About three of the eight machines were down.”
Martin said she had waited about 90 minutes to vote at the same site in 2008, but the delay didn’t deter anyone.
This year, the wait at that precinct only grew longer as the day continued, with reports of people waiting seven hours.
Richland County spokeswoman Stephany Snowden described the county’s long waits as widespread. It might be midnight before results come in, she said, as voting continued past 8 p.m. The county sent additional machines to Ridge View, she said.
Snowden said the county used the same number of machines as in 2008. She was unsure if distribution played a role in the problem or if the machines were tested prior to Election Day. Battery failures seemed to be part of the problem, but the county election commission will be “doing a post mortem” on Wednesday, she said.
“I know there have been several technical issues, with machines breaking down,” she said. “Seven hours is just not acceptable.”
Keller Barron, poll manager at Dreher High School, said about 50 voters lined up before doors opened at 7 a.m.
“People kept pouring in. ... We were able to control the crowd because we brought them inside from the cold,” Barron said. “I joked with them that I was brought in from Disney World as a crowd control manager.”
By early evening, she said, three-quarters of the precinct’s nearly 1,300 registered voters had cast their ballots. While lines were about two hours earlier in the day, there were none by 5 p.m.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. following a record number of absentee voters. About 400,000 South Carolinians voted absentee, surpassing the previous high set in 2008 by roughly 60,000 voters.
Richland County topped the list of absentee voters, accounting for nearly 10 percent of votes cast early statewide.
Voter registration has also hit a new high, with 2.9 million people registered by Nov. 2. That’s an additional 323,000 potential voters for this presidential election, compared with four years ago.
A third record could also be set in voter participation. The previous high was set in the last presidential election, when 76 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.