Two audits of South Carolina's November 2010 general election found scores of human errors that led to incorrect vote counts and other problems.
None of these errors were large enough to have changed the outcome of a election or referendum, but they were significant enough to prompt the State Election Commission to make several procedural and policy changes.
The problems emboldened critics questioning the accuracy, reliability and accountability of the state's voting machines. And they could prompt the Legislature to lengthen the time period between Election Day and when counties meet to certify the results to give counties extra time to audit data.
Barbara Zia, co-president of South Carolina's League of Women Voters, said the scrutiny of the state's election system was triggered in part by the June 2010 Senate Democratic primary in which an unknown candidate who didn't campaign won handily with 60 percent of the vote. The league's recent audit - which requested information from all counties under the Freedom of Information Act - was an outgrowth of that. Only 15 of 46 counties provided all five files requested.
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Duncan Buell, a University of South Carolina computer science professor, helped spearhead the League's audit. "By my count, there were eight counties for which there were significant problems in terms of being able to get an independent audit to determine if the numbers were correct."
He noted that Williamsburg, Orangeburg and Lancaster counties had no electronic date available, while Oconee and Horry counties were unable to produce usable audit files. In Richland County, more than 1,000 votes in two different precincts didn't get counted. Colleton certified incorrect totals because of human error, and Charleston County was unable to account for 35,000 votes, or about 25 percent of the total, in the audit.
Taken together, Buell said, "we have a serious problem in having an election where we can go back and get results and be sure we have the right answers. I think what we have a system that's not acceptable because there are too many errors."
The State Election Commission performed a statewide audit for the first time and found similar problems caused by human error, said Chris Whitmire, the commission's director of Public Information and Training.
Whitmire said the commission has developed software that will allow counties to conduct audits before they certify the results - and the state also will audit results before certification. Procedures and training are being rewritten to emphasize how to open and close a polling place and to encourage the counties to save data properly.
State Sen. Chris Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, said the state's limited control over county election boards is a problem; state law doesn't require the counties to conform to their procedures. But he is optimistic that election reform measures would draw bipartisan support.