The almost three-hour waiting game that resulted in no final vote tally in Aiken County during South Carolina's primaries on Tuesday was what one person called a “worst-case scenario.”
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Aiken County was the only county that did not report to the State Election Commission by Wednesday morning. Only by 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday were unofficial partial votes tabulated for the state to report.
“The worst that can happen has already happened – you having a delay in reporting your complete county results,” Chris Whitmire, State Election Commission spokesman, said.
A State Election Commission technician was sent to the Aiken County Government Center early on Wednesday to troubleshoot why candidates, the press and residents were unable to view any tabulated voting results – both absentee and electronic – until almost 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
At the end of the night and on Wednesday morning, no votes were posted on the State's website, www.scvotes.org – not even absentee or partial.
As sparse election results trickled in, rumors floated that the office was experiencing some mechanical problems or lag time due to the number of precincts dropping off ballot boxes all at the same time after polls closed at 7 p.m.
That lag created frustration for the candidates, voters and media, and many questions are still lingering.
State coached Aiken election workers
The County and the State elections offices did talk on Tuesday night about issues pertaining to tabulating primary ballots in the Government Center.
Whitmire said the County and State spoke for one to two hours on the phone, with State officials coaching the County through issues, such as how to close the ballot machines and how the votes are totaled from the machines.
“... And all the different methods we were trying with them over the phone were not working,” Whitmire said. “It was an indication that something out of the ordinary is going on, either with how the polling places opened, how they were closed or that the standard techniques were not working. ... And that didn't work, so at a certain point in the night you get to where you ask, ‘Is it productive for us to continue this at 1 a.m.?'”
Whitmire said he did not want to speculate on exactly what the issues were, but that it wouldn't affect being able to count votes or retrieve ballots.
“Relative from our perspective, it's an issue and it's concerning,” Whitmire said. “It's something we need to address, and address quickly. ... But when you have counties who have 15,000 to 20,000 poll managers, there is something bound to come up.”
Flashback to 2012
This is not the first time in recent years the County has experienced election complications.
Two years ago, County voters experienced nearly the same problems – machines not working and a lag time in vote tabulations.
South Carolina Rep. Roland Smith, R-Warrenville, recognized the issue in 2012, but was unsure of all the details on Tuesday night and if any comparisons could be made.
“... I haven't gotten a report from what the problem was, or how they addressed it or how they can get it fixed, or what they're proposing to do so that it doesn't happen in two weeks in the runoff,” Smith said. “I've asked them to put that in writing to me. It's a problem that has to be dealt with. We have to improve it. We can't just let this continue to go on.”
South Carolina Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, echoed the same sentiment.
“I don't know what the problem is, but in the next coming days, we're going to find out what the problem is,” Taylor said. “And we have to have solutions because the public expects flawless elections. They also expect – particularly with low voter turnout – rapid returns.”
As far as what went wrong, Aiken County Registration and Elections Executive Director Cynthia Holland said there were a number of problems, including programming, flash cards and the machines themselves.
Some machines were opened against standard operating procedure on election morning. Typically, machines are put in the booth, plugged into a power cord in the booth for power, and then turned on. Machines can also use battery power in an emergency. On Tuesday, before polls opened, some machines were taken out of the booth, turned on simply running on battery power, causing the machines to power down in the middle of opening.
According to Whitmire, eight machines were affected that never had any votes or ballots recorded on them. Because the machines were opened on battery power outside of the booth, a lack of power caused them to die.
“Our training doesn't say, ‘Be sure to open in the booth because machine could die in the middle of opening,' but that's our standard process – to open the machine in the booth,” Whitmire said.
Holland said the instructions the poll clerks have say open machines outside of the booth, but the County does advise they be opened inside the booth.
When asked why she did not report partial or absentee votes to the State Election Commission, Holland said she was more concerned about getting the precincts results closed out.
“It was my decision,” Holland said. “I was dealing with that. As far as partial results to do with Aiken County, we did have someone here posting on our website.”
When asked why the County did not hand out absentee vote totals prior to the total tabulations, Holland said that's something they can look at.
“I just want to assure everyone that no votes were lost,” Holland said. “If you came out yesterday, your votes did count. Our numbers matched up, and that's what our concern was – to make sure the totals matched as they were supposed to.”
But not all are comforted by the lag in time it took County officials to tally up the votes.
“When you have 14,000 people that go out and vote, I mean 20 years ago, they would have been counted by hand, and it would have been done by 1 o'clock in the morning,” said KT Ruthven, Aiken County Republican Party chairman. “Here it is noon (on Wednesday) and they have five precincts that they can't figure out how to do it. It seems that they really just don't know what's going on.”
• Maayan Schechter is the local government reporter with Aiken Standard. Follow her on Twitter @MaayanSchechter.
– Editorial Page Editor Michael Ulmer contributed to this article.
Staff photo by Derrek Asberry Cars sat for almost 30 minutes on Tuesday night to drop off ballot boxes outside the Aiken County Goverment Center on Tuesday, after precincts closed at 7 p.m. from the South Carolina primaries.×
Staff photo by Derrek Asberry Cars arriving from Aiken County precincts, that all closed at 7 p.m., lined up around the Aiken County Government Center to drop off ballot boxes for vote tabulations from the South Carolina primaries on Tuesday night. Some drivers waited 30 minutes to drop off boxes.×