South Carolina election officials insist the machines voters will use Nov. 2 will give an accurate tally, but a growing number of people are less sure.
For six years, the state's voters have used the iVotronic touch-screen system made by Election Systems & Software, a Nebraska-based company that's one of the major players in the industry.
The state bought 12,000 machines with federal dollars doled out in response to Florida's "hanging chad" controversy during the 2000 presidential race. They replaced a hodgepodge of voting systems used by the state's 46 counties.
Despite criticism of the iVotronic system in other states, the reliability of South Carolina's machines hadn't been much of an issue until Charleston County Councilman Vic Rawl questioned them after what many considered a shocking U.S. Senate Democratic primary loss to unknown Manning resident Alvin Greene.
But Rawl's loss - and the discovery that Greene won big on many counties' machines while losing to Rawl in paper absentee ballots in those same counties - breathed fire into a debate that has smoldered among software experts, private citizens and some members of the S.C. League of Women Voters.
"We put up pretty substantial circumstantial evidence that it couldn't have happened but for the machines," Rawl said of his loss.
No perfect technology
The issue is not unique to South Carolina. A recent report from the Brennan Center in New York analyzed problems with voting machines in other states and said more should be done to document their reliability.
"Unlike makers of other commercial products, voting machine manufacturers are not obligated to report malfunctions to any government agency," the report concluded, "and election officials and the public are often totally reliant on the private companies that sell and service the equipment to voluntarily keep them aware of potential problems."
While everyone agrees that concerns about the machines shouldn't keep anyone from casting their ballot next month, they know this is a prime time to raise the issue, as voting - and how it works - moves to the forefront of people's minds.
Still, the voting machine debate seems stuck. Supporters say there's no evidence that the machines have caused problems; detractors say the fact that the machines can't be double-checked for errors is the problem.
Further complicating the debate is its complexity: Election officials admit there's no perfect election technology that guarantees accurate and secure results. The success of any technology, from paper ballots to the most state-of-the-art machines, depends on the competence of humans using it.
Also, the machine's software is held in secret by ES&S for competitive reasons, while the state's security plan can remain secret under the state's Freedom of Information Act.
"We wouldn't want to give a thief a map of the schematics of our burglar alarm system," State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said. "I think most people do understand that."
Even if they do, detractors note that the state's argument boils down to state officials saying, "trust us" in a political climate where trust in government has taken a hit.
While the iVotronic machines haven't had a perfect run in South Carolina - several shut down in Horry County in 2008 - there had been little talk of their affecting an outcome until June 9. That's when Rawl and his supporters began examining how he lost the Democratic Senate primary by 20 points to a man who didn't campaign and who was facing a felony charge.
Truett Nettles, a former Charleston County Board of Elections chairman and the lawyer who handled Rawl's appeal, said his best guess about what happened is that every fourth vote for Rawl somehow was switched to a vote for Greene on the state's voting machines.
"The result here was an anomaly. It wasn't just a freak thing. It was statistically impossible," Nettles said. However, the state party rejected the appeal because Nettles and Rawl could offer only circumstantial proof that it happened. And Nettles said that's the problem.
"We've got to have a system capable of going back and reviewing it and verifying it," he said. "The system we have now is not legal because you can't get a recount. You just get a printout, which is the same thing you have the first time, which doesn't prove anything."
Whitmire said the state acknowledges there is no voter-verified paper audit trail and noted there were no such systems on the market when the state bought its machines six years ago. Retrofitting them with printers could cost about $14 million, a big price tag.
He noted the iVotronic has been well received by the public. A survey after the 2006 elections found that 71 percent of voters were very confident they provided "an honest, fair and accurate" result.
"The system has been used in literally thousands of elections, and it's performed well every single time," he said.
Marilyn Bowers, director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, has more than 30 years of experience running elections. She said those questioning the machines are in the minority. And she said the machines' testing and security measures are extensive and have worked well.
"I have full confidence in this voting system. These few people making this noise are not the majority."
But their numbers seem to be on the rise. Frank Heindel, a Charleston businessman, began asking about the machines after the June primaries and retrieved reams of records showing assorted problems - problems election officials insist didn't affect any results.
"I have a hard time being confident with it when you have a secret security plan and a secret certification report," he said. "Nobody is paying attention. Nobody is looking over anybody's shoulder."
'No one can say'
Duncan A. Buell, a professor with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of South Carolina, has studied the machines along with the state's League of Women Voters. Buell appeared before state election commissioners last month to discuss a 2007 report from Ohio that found the machines can't be reliably used for elections and that no procedures will reduce the risks. He shares the concern about software glitches and proprietary software and finds Rawl's loss to Greene the only anomalous event in the state to date.
"A lot of people have said we've had no problems, but no one can say we've had no problems because no one knows what the truth really was," he said. "The South Carolina opinion is we have policies and procedures that eliminate the risk. I don't think there's any reason to accuse the Election Commission of conspiracy or anything, but I think there's a great deal of inertia. I think their intransigence on this subject is not malicious. I think it's just intransigence."
S.C. League of Women Voters President Barbara Zia said she shares Buell's concerns and finds it unfortunate that the issue isn't on anyone's radar until an election.
"You wait for something to happen, like a meltdown like we saw with these anomalous results in the June primary that are very difficult to explain," she said.
While the state's ongoing budget crisis likely will prevent any quick response to the machines' critics, the iVotronic machines are about halfway through their life expectancy. State officials gradually will talk about replacing them, even as they reaffirm that the machines are working fine.