South Carolina House budget plan includes $6 million for state elections agency

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COLUMBIA — The South Carolina State Election Commission would get about $6 million in one-time money to buy laptops that can speed up precinct voting lines and to start saving for a future replacement of voting machines under the House budget plan.

The money is part of $113 million that the budget proposal, approved this week, distributes from the current fiscal year’s rainy day fund.

Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said $600,000 would buy 1,200 laptops with electronic voter registration lists that can help move lines because poll managers can process voters more quickly, compared to searching for names on paper lists.

“Lines at polling places usually form at the check-in table,” Whitmire said. “Over a 12-hour voting day, it can have a big impact on how quickly the lines can move.”

The electronic look-up also would enable poll workers to tell voters who show up at the wrong precinct where they need to go. Paper print-outs list only the names of registered voters for that particular polling place, he said.

Another benefit of going electronic is speeding up the agency’s post-election processing that provides statistics on who voted and helps keep voter rolls current, Whitmire said.

The $600,000 allocation would put two laptops in 600 polling places statewide, as part of a multiyear purchase. In 2008-09, the agency bought enough laptops to put one in every precinct with more than 2,000 registered voters. County elections offices have also bought laptops with local funds.

Currently, 15 counties have a laptop at each precinct, 14 counties use them at some precincts, and 17 don’t have any, Whitmire said.

In Richland County, where some voters stood in line for more than five hours last November, 70 percent of precincts used electronic lists, he said. Election Day mishaps in the county that’s home to the state capital were attributed to local officials not hiring enough poll workers and distributing hundreds fewer machines than legally required, many with battery failures.

The state elections agency hopes to set aside $5 million to begin saving for a new statewide voting system needed after 2016. The current system has been in use since 2004 and cost $30 million for roughly 12,000 machines, Whitmire said.

He said the system works fine now, but the agency’s trying to plan ahead.

“The hardware associated with it will eventually wear out, the machines and touch screens. All hardware has a life cycle,” he said. “We want to tuck it away so the pain won’t be as sharp when we get to the point of needing to replace it.”

The $113 million capital reserve bill is a separate measure from the House’s $6.3 billion spending plan for state taxes in the fiscal year that starts July 1. Total designations in the two bills sent to the Senate on Wednesday tally $22.7 billion when including all revenue sources, including federal money, agency fees, grants, lottery scholarships and reserves.

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