Originally created 12/18/00

Area evaluates ballots



AIKEN - Aiken County officials hope to replace a voting system similar to the one in Florida that held up presidential election results for more than a month.

"Speaking personally, because I can't speak for the whole commission yet, I would sure love for us to get a new voting system," Election Commission Chairman Ben Christensen said. "The punch-card technology was developed for the 1890 census, so we literally are using the technology of the horse-and-buggy days."

Aiken County election officials formed a subcommittee after the 1996 general election to explore new voting systems, but high prices and finite resources pushed the project by the wayside, Mr. Christensen said.

After the disaster in Florida, the commission decided to reactivate the subcommittee, he said.

More than 32 percent of the nation uses punch cards similar to the ones that caused so much confusion in the Florida presidential election. In this method of voting, a stylus is used to punch holes in a ballot.

Richmond and Columbia County voters also pick their candidates with a stylus.

The Richmond County Election Board has been shopping for new election equipment for two years. The county is leaning toward an optical scanner system that would cost $500,000 to $750,000.

Columbia County officials, on the other hand, have no intention of upgrading, said Deborah Marshall, executive director of the county's board of elections.

Punch-card systems are particularly prone to problems because a hole may not be completely punched through. That can leave a chad - a tiny rectangular piece of cardboard - dangling. And counting machines can push the chad back into the hole, causing a vote not to be recorded.

"There are inherent inaccuracies in the counting process. It's a random error, and I don't think it hurts one side more than the other," Mr. Christensen said. "But for me, the big thing is that we have these paper ballots that are subject to some question of manipulation after the fact. I don't think that's a good service to the voters of America, and certainly Aiken County, to have someone else infer what their intentions were with that ballot."

Ironically, Edgefield County - a more rural, sparsely populated area than Aiken, Richmond or Columbia counties - already has the computerized voting system most counties probably will adopt eventually.

In the early 1980s, the county made a quantum leap from paper ballots, which had to be hand-counted, to a DRE - direct record electronic - system.

"They've saved our lives," said Mary Ellen Painter, voter registration director in the county.

There are four types of voting systems used in South Carolina, said Stuart Bedenbaugh, Aiken County Voter Registration director. They are paper ballots, punch cards, DRE and optical scan, which is similar to the bubble-response sheets used in standardized tests.

"When and if we purchase a new voting system, it will be a DRE system, I suspect," Mr. Bedenbaugh said.

There are two types of DRE systems: touch screen and push button. They range in price from $2,000 to $5,000 per machine.

By law, Aiken County will need one machine for every 250 registered voters. That's a minimum of 320 machines.

But the county now uses one machine for every 177 voters, so 450 machines would be needed for it to remain that way.

If Aiken officials decide to get rid of the system they've used since 1974, it could cost the county as much as $2 million.

Mr. Christensen said he didn't know when the election commission subcommittee would be ready to go before County Council to ask for the funds.

"Speaking for myself only, I want to go full speed ahead," he said.

Reach Katie Throne at (803) 279-6895.