SC will get the 2020 election equipment it needs by Nov. 3

Joe Craig votes at Brennen Elementary School with his one-year-old daughter, Molly. Three precincts are combined at Brennen Elementary School. 6/9/20

Tracy Glantz

Charleston, S.C.

For five tense days, the people tasked with running elections in South Carolina’s 46 counties did not know if they would get the voting equipment they need to streamline the voter check-in process and diminish the likelihood of every election official’s greatest fear: Voters receiving the wrong ballot on Election Day.

Then, on Wednesday night, they exhaled.

At 7:05 p.m., South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster approved the S.C. Election Commission’s request for $5 million to purchase devices known as electronic poll books.

Without this equipment, election officials feared the state’s voters would find themselves standing in longer lines and enduring a slower check-in process at their polling place.

Electronic poll books, also known as e-poll books, replace the paper process formerly used to check in voters when they show up to cast a ballot. Instead of paper binders, e-poll books use a tablet or laptop computer.

County election officials were told during a call on Friday that it was unlikely the devices would arrive for the upcoming Nov. 3 election. The news, delivered 46 days before the election, left officials scrambling to find a solution.

Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the S.C. Election Commission, said the commission had set a self-imposed deadline of finding the required money by the end of this week. Even once the equipment is secured, it must be shipped, and poll workers need to be trained on how to use the devices.

Whitmire spoke to The State in an interview before McMaster approved the equipment funding Wednesday night.

At least one county election official confirmed he had already turned in his county’s electronic poll books in order to make room for the new technology.

News of the funding issue surrounding the election equipment was first reported by The State Wednesday evening. Hours later, McMaster approved the funding request submitted by South Carolina Elections Commission Executive Director Marci Andino.

The money will come from the state’s COVID-19 Response Reserve account, according to letters obtained by The State newspaper.

Whitmire said the status of the new poll books had been in limbo because there no longer was money to pay for them, and officials had to start looking for funding elsewhere.

But publicly, it had appeared as if the arrival of the new e-poll books was imminent.

A search for funding

The S.C. Election Commission announced its intent in late August to award a $6.5 million contract to Election Systems and Software for a new statewide electronic poll book system. The company is the nation’s largest voting equipment vendor and had been previously selected for the state’s new voting machines.

The funds for the contract, Whitmire said, were tied to a non-recurring $9.3 million budget request made by the S.C. Election Commission. The request was made before COVID-19 forced the S.C. Legislature to tackle pandemic-related funding priorities, which disrupted the usual budgeting process.

“The hope of state budget funding has faded,” Whitmire said Tuesday evening after S.C. House members sent the state budget back to committee for review.

The legislative session ends at 5 p.m. Thursday, when all pending bills die. The state budget-writing Ways and Means Committee has no meetings scheduled this week.

“We are exploring whether or not there are any other funding sources, while simultaneously looking at the funding we do have,” Whitmire said Tuesday.

The state Election Commission received $6.3 million in federal funding after Congress passed a coronavirus relief package, along with up to $15 million from the state Legislature, when McMaster signed a $155 million COVID-19 relief package in May.

The state funding was meant to address voting and safety during both the state’s June primary and November general election.

Whitmire said the state Election Commission had only about $4.5 million of the nearly $9.5 million needed to cover the costs of the equipment.

“The new poll book solution would greatly improve the process of determining, selecting and providing voters with the correct ballot style, which is a huge part of what happens at a polling place on Election Day. It’s one of the most critical things that happen,” he said.

“It’s crunch time on whether this can happen and whether this can happen at all,” he said. “We either do it now, or it’s too late.”

‘A massive upgrade’

There are just weeks to go before counties hold a major presidential election, and county election officials were counting on having these new devices as they prepare for longer lines, higher voter turnout and an uptick in absentee voting.

Joe Debney, director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and Registration, said the new poll book system will be “a massive upgrade” from what counties currently use. He has seen the technology in action.

Charleston County piloted the use of the new e-poll books in 2018, deploying them in the Folly Beach municipal election, which acted as a small test run since the election took place at one location with four precincts. The county then used the system at a few polling locations the following June for the 2018 statewide primary election to see how the system would handle a higher-turnout election with more ballot styles.

Debney said it was successful.

“We need to know what the system looks like, how it operates, and we need to be trained on it,” Debney said.

Berkeley County Elections Director Adam Hammons said he had already turned in the old electronic poll books in anticipation of the new system.

“We never got any indication at the local level that there was even a doubt that this would be an issue,” Hammons said. “The unknown is the biggest detriment for us right now. When do I pull the trigger on renting laptops? Or when do I hold off? And can I cancel them if I don’t need them?”

Now, Hammons won’t have to worry.

After learning funding had been secured, Hammons said Wednesday night he looks forward to getting the equipment so he can start training poll workers.

The voting equipment vendor has been asked to ship the electronic poll books as soon as possible.

Caitlin Byrd covers the Charleston region as an enterprise reporter for The State. She grew up in eastern North Carolina and she graduated from UNC Asheville in 2011. Since moving to Charleston in 2016, Byrd has broken national news, told powerful stories and documented the nuances of both a presidential primary and a high-stakes congressional race. She most recently covered politics at The Post and Courier. To date, Byrd has won more than 17 awards for her journalism.

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