South Carolina: Votes were miscounted, laws ignored

September 24, 2011

Votes were miscounted, laws ignored


Sunday, September 25, 2011


Thousands of votes in the 2010 general election were counted incorrectly in South Carolina. Not only were these votes counted incorrectly, the State Election Commission (SEC) is ignoring state law that requires a recount and federal law that requires that the entirety of the data files from an election be retained for 22 months.

These reasonable obligations were not followed despite concerns raised by the League of Women Voters of South Carolina (LWVSC) about potential problems with our voting machines.

The League has not detected any corrections that would have overturned election results, but the audit of the results is not complete.

Given the large number of votes incorrectly recorded and the pervasiveness of errors, it is entirely possible that some close elections have been decided incorrectly in the past.

This year, researchers associated with the LWVSC performed a recount of the vote in the 2010 general election for 14 counties and identified thousands of miscounted votes. After this group discovered errors in the certified totals in Richland, Horry and Colleton counties, the SEC employed a contractor to write computer programs that will, for the first time since buying the Election Systems & Software (ES&S) equipment, recount the vote.

Additional errors in the reported vote have now been found and more counties remain to be examined. The SEC is now attempting a statewide recount of the 2010 general election.

But there is a problem -- the SEC can't find thousands of the votes needed to do a recount.

Federal law requires that the vote data files be retained for 22 months, but in some counties (including Orangeburg and Lancaster) no electronic vote data are available. In some other counties (including Charleston) thousands of the votes are missing from the electronic data.

In Williamsburg County all data that should have been entered electronically were entered manually, a process that has been shown to increase errors in other counties.

Although South Carolina law requires a recount of the vote in some circumstances, the SEC has not performed a recount since adopting the ES&S voting machines.

Section 7-17-280 of the S.C. Code of Laws requires a recount of the votes when the top two candidates differ by less than 1 percent. There have been very close elections in which the recount was required by law, but no recount was done. The SEC does a re-total and calls it a recount.

How does a re-total differ from a recount?

Suppose the principal of a local school needs to know the number of students in school on a given day. He instructs each teacher to count his or her students and post the number on a sheet of paper outside the classroom. The assistant principal walks through the school, writing down the numbers, and reports the sum to the principal. The number of students has been counted.

But the principal thinks the number may not be correct and instructs the assistant to recount the number of students.

She walks through the school again, writing the same numbers from the same papers outside the classroom that she wrote down before, and reports the sum to the principal. She has done a re-total, but not a recount. An actual recount would require that each teacher count again and post corrected or confirmed totals on the door before the numbers are collected and totaled.

The "recount" done by the State Election Commission is really a re-total. It sums the totals from the precincts a second time, but it does not recount the votes.

Thousands of votes were miscounted and the SEC has not followed laws that require recounts and retention of the entirety of the data files.

In order to protect the integrity of our elections in South Carolina, it is time the voters of South Carolina demand that the SEC follow the laws.

Eleanor Hare, Ph.D., is retired from the Department of Computer Science at Clemson University.