Originally created 08/14/04

Digital machines garner votes of election officials



AIKEN - The night of the general election in 1984 was a strained but exciting time for Aiken County election officials and interested parties who bothered to stick around until the end.

It was a night officials can laugh about today, especially as groundwork is laid to replace the punch-card Votomatic system implemented in 1972 with digital voting machines for the November general election.

Frances Pennington, now deputy director of the voter registration and elections office, was a member of the county's Board of Elections at the time. There were more than 500 ballots that night that had to be recounted or punched for various reasons, she recalled Friday.

"There were pink cards everywhere," she said, trying to hold back tears of laughter as she prepared to tell the next story.

It was really late when elections board member Gene England reached for his roast beef sandwich.

"I had worked these elections often enough at that point, I knew to bring a sandwich," he said on the telephone after finding out Ms. Pennington had rekindled the story.

The way she told it, current Aiken County Councilman Willar Hightower grabbed the sandwich out of Mr. England's hand and took a bite.

Mr. England's version was slightly different.

"I handed it to him, and he went ahead to take the bite, and I thought he was about to bite my finger," Mr. England said.

Mr. England is among those looking forward to having the county's 72 precincts armed with 390 digitized vote machines, which started arriving earlier this week.

"I think they're going to be a really great thing," Mr. England said. "It should be simpler for the voters and the county."

Mr. Hightower laughed about the sandwich incident, but recalled fondly a punch card system that might have bent but never broke.

"It was just part of the growing pains," he said of late-night vote counts. "It worked well for us because we had honest people in the system. We would never have the problem like Florida had because of the people involved."

Federal authorities called for the replacement of punch-card machines after thousands of votes cast in Florida for the 2000 presidential election had to be recounted.

The government is even giving South Carolina more than $2 million for having it done before 2006, when every county in the state will use digital voting, said Stuart Bedenbaugh, the executive director of the Voter Registration and Elections Office.

The machine, which will allow voters to make their choices by touching the screen and will let them double check their selections, is expected to expedite the process. It can tabulate hundreds of votes in minutes.

That could mean less late-night problems, but should offer greater accuracy, Mr. Bedenbuagh said.

"It's a very intuitive device," he said. "It is not complicated."

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.