The Feb. 29 Democratic presidential primary will be South Carolina's first major test for its new voting machines. Last year, the state invested $51 million on new machines that election officials say are easier to use and more secure than what South Carolinians had been using for years.
The new system is a two-step process. Step 1 is to make your selections at a touch screen station called ExpressVote. When you're finished, ExpressVote prints your selections on a paper ballot.
Mary Ann Hudson, director of the Lancaster County Board of Voter Registration and elections, calls ExpressVote "a fancy pencil" because despite its large touch screen, this station ultimately just makes sure that the options you once upon a time would have circled with a pencil are printed uniformly, and without the possibility of ambiguity.
Once the sheet is printed, voters review their ballots and either make a change (and print a new ballot) or take your ballot to Step 2: The digital scanner, which reads and counts your vote for real.
So there is a paper trail along with an offline digital record of votes -- a major step forward, say state and county election officials.
"It’s a whole lot easier," Hudson says. "More voter friendly."
That voter friendliness includes aspects like brightly lit screens, the ability to magnify if you have trouble seeing the screen, ports for hearing devices, and the ability for disabled voters to use mouthpieces.
But a major reason to invest in new voting machines is election security. Lancaster County Election Specialist Robert Purser says the new system is "the perfect example of security" because the machines are all offline. Cyber-tamperers, he says, have no way to get to the votes. But even if they did, the system's paper ballots are a physical backup that, if necessary, could be tallied by hand.
Hudson says the county will not be verifying every vote for every election by hand, but will randomly sample and match totals and selections to make sure things are running smoothly after each election.
While some residents, such as Don Hudnall, say they like the new security-conscious system and appreciate its paper trail, and while Lancaster residents at a recent county-held deomonstration of the new machines breezed through their trial runs, the new system is not without its critics.
The South Carolina League of Women Voters has chided the state for investing in a system that the league fears could exacerbate long lines at the polls, and for investing in a computerized selection system rather than in hand-markable ballots.
Nevertheless, the new system is rolling out in time for the South's first primary. Deadline to register to vote in the primary is Thursday Jan. 30.