WMBF Investigates: Statewide discrepancy between absentee ballots returned, votes counted

A South Carolina voter holds up an 'I voted' sticker after casting her ballot.
A South Carolina voter holds up an 'I voted' sticker after casting her ballot.
Published: Dec. 17, 2018 at 8:43 PM EST
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HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - More than a month since November’s midterm election, the number of absentee ballots counted does not match the number of ballots returned in South Carolina.

Following the election, 2,022 more absentee ballots statewide were counted than those returned. Florence had the largest discrepancy, with 1,554 more counted than returned.

Florence election director David Alford said while the numbers don’t match, the actual votes were not affected.

Alford explained individuals’ votes were cast but poll workers did not report the completed transaction in the system. He said this was the first time this issue has come to his attention and workers have since gone back to review the records.

On Monday, WMBF obtained updated information on the number of reported absentee ballots from the South Carolina Election Commission.

Updated counts reveal the discrepancy statewide decreased to 1,071, with more ballots returned than counted.

Florence County decreased its difference to nine ballots.

Alford said his office will work to better train poll workers on entering ballots correctly the next time around.

Horry County had a discrepancy of only 33 votes, but new data shows this number increased to more than 100.

“I think our discrepancies came from the ballots being put in wrong. We had some that when the absentee ballots come back after the election, they are supposed to be put in to the absentee part and instead they were put in as a provisional ballot,” Horry County election director Sandy Martin said. “The votes were there, they just didn’t have the paperwork right.”

Chris Whitmire, spokesperson for the S.C. Election Commission, said the state is continuing to question these differences and work with the counties to update its records.

Whitmire said the numbers will rarely match perfectly. He explained unsigned ballots and ballots that were challenged can result in a ballot labeled as returned but not counted.

Currently, Bamberg, Richland and Lexington counties have the highest discrepancies. Whitmire said the state found Bamberg County did not certify some of its absentee ballots. The commission is awaiting a response from Richland County.

Other challenges for South Carolina election offices

“It gets a little harder every time,” Martin said, commenting on elections in Horry County.

Martin is hoping the Horry County Council approves funding for two to three more full-time staff members in the election office.

She said Horry County had more staff members in the election office in the 1980sm when there were only 40,000 registered voters.

The county now has more than 200,000 registered voters.

““Our growth is just so quickly here it’s hard to keep up with it quite honestly,” Martin admitted. “We get the job done because that is what we have to do but it would make it a lot easier if we had more dedicated staff.”

In addition to being short staffed, the county also has aging voting machines.

“It’s like a computer so it’s nearing the end of its life expectancy. There are boards in it that go bad that you don’t know are going to go bad until it happens,” Martin said.

She added that in November’s election, the county actually didn’t have enough machines, but they had to make do.

The voting machines are more than a decade old but the state is seeking to implement a new voting system by January 2020.

Alford said these are issues counties across the country face. He added some challenges can be alleviated by changing laws in South Carolina.

The election director said individuals can only vote early in the state if they give a reason. According to Alford, allowing more voters to cast their ballots before Election Day would decrease the amount of poll workers needed.

Alford also said if capital sales tax referendums could be summarized on ballots instead of written in their entirety, time would be saved.

For now, election officials said they are trying to decrease as many challenges as possible before the next big election.

“Moving forward we’re trying to, you know, look for solutions to things we think we may face in 2020 because we know November 2020 is going to be a huge election,” Martin said.

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