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South Carolina Primary Voters Will Use Brand New Machines

When primary voters go to the polls in South Carolina on Saturday, they'll be the first in the nation to use all-new voting equipment. It's one of about a dozen states replacing all or most of their voting machines this year, in part because of security concerns after Russian interference in the 2016 election.

South Carolina officials are eager to emphasize the reliability of their state's equipment following the Iowa caucuses debacle, where a flawed app delayed the reporting of accurate results for weeks.

The state's old voting machines relied on touchscreen technology that didn't leave a paper trail that could be audited after the election. The new machines will mark a paper ballot with a bar code and the selected candidates' names. The ballots then get inserted into a scanner for counting.

Chris Whitmire of the state's Election Commission showed voters earlier this week how to use the new equipment, part of an effort to educate them about changes to the voting process ahead of the primary.

"When we say we have a paper record of the voter's voted ballot at the end of the day, they like that and that makes them feel more confident in the integrity of the election and about the security of the election and it does us, too," said Whitmire.

Chris Whitmire of the South Carolina Election Commission has been showing voters how to use the state's new equipment.
Pam Fessler / NPR
Chris Whitmire of the South Carolina Election Commission has been showing voters how to use the state's new equipment.

At an early voting site in Columbia this week, voter Dwayne Sims agreed.

"I do like the fact that there's a paper ballot. I did double-check and make sure that the person I selected was the name that was on the ballot."

But Sims worries that the extra steps needed to vote under the new system could cause long lines at some polling sites.

Another voter at the site was Duncan Buell, a computer scientist at the University of South Carolina who is concerned about aspects of the technology. "I'm not a fan of the ballot marking devices because the votes are actually counted not from the text that I can read, but from bar codes."

He says he'd be more confident if the state more thoroughly audited the ballots afterward. It's a concern computer scientists have expressed elsewhere, including in neighboring Georgia, which is also using new machines this year.

Buell thinks one advantage South Carolina has is that it was able to use the equipment for several low-turnout elections and will have time to work out any kinks before the November general election.

Some voters also have concerns about the technology.

"I personally cannot read the bar code, so I'm having to trust the system," said Melissa Rose.

It was a concern shared by the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, but co-President Christe McCoy-Lawrence says the group is putting it aside to focus on voter turnout.

"We feel now that one of the greatest dangers comes from people losing faith in the voting process," she said. "So we did not agree with this decision, but it's made, so we are now completely engaged in conveying confidence in the system."

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Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.