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Election 2016: Delays at the polls add to voter frustration

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

If some Republican voters were frustrated before they went to the polls in the party’s presidential primary, that feeling only grew as they waited over an hour to cast their ballot at Pawleys Island area precincts.

“Somebody screwed up bad,” Al Fussa said as he waited in line at the Waccamaw Library.

Local GOP officials wanted them to know it wasn’t the party, but the state and local election commission that were responsible for running the primary.

“I’ve been here 13 years, this is the worst I’ve ever seen,” Ray Zafferani, a Tradition Club resident, told Billy Altman, who chairs the Georgetown County Board of Elections and Registration.

A combination of budget constraints and equipment problems slowed the voting, Altman said. Also, “we underestimated the number of people,” he said.

Turnout was 11,572 in the county this year, that was up from 9,673 in the 2012 GOP primary.

There were also long waits at Lowcountry Prep, where Pawleys Island 3 votes, and at the Waccamaw Regional Recreation Center, the polling place for Pawleys Island 2. “This is the worst,” Altman said as he surveyed the line that wound back and forth through the auditorium at the library at midday.

The precinct had four voting machines, but only one computer where poll workers could check voter registrations. Around 9 a.m., one of the voting machines broke. As the pace of voting picked up, one of the three remaining machines was taken outside where there was a steady stream of curbside voting for elderly or disabled voters who couldn’t stand in line.

Kathryn Cummings of Litchfield Country Club found a seat in the library line. She had waited about 45 minutes, but was still short of the registration desk. That didn’t change her choice of candidate, but she said “I’ve had plenty of time to think it over.”

One voter, who declined to give his name, said 30 people had walked away rather than wait. County Council Member John Thomas was one.

“I went back about 2-2:30; it took about 10 minutes,” he said.

By then Donna Mahan, the county director of Elections and Voter Registration, had brought in a second laptop computer to sign in voters. “We had a directive from the state about how many workers we could have,” she said. “We were told by the state that it wouldn’t be a big turnout.”

A second computer was also sent to the recreation center. Brian Shult, the county auditor and a GOP precinct officer, waited about 40 minutes to vote. He noted that the three voting machines were never all in use at the same time. The line stretched down the hall toward the front desk, then around the corner toward the locker rooms. Voters at the end of the line could pick up stray shots from a pickleball match in the gym.

The number of poll workers was limited by the budget set by the state, Altman said. The county election commission created a plan for the election in January. Randy Hollister, the county GOP chairman, said he was told that the commission set up two sets of computers to register voters: one for the Republican primary and one for the Democratic primary that will be held this Saturday. Holding separate primaries was supposed to prevent delays, said Jerry Rovner, the party chairman in the 7th Congressional District. Instead, “they figured then only needed half the machines,” he said.

Altman said it wasn’t staffing that caused the problems. “It’s a function of estimated turnout,” he said. “This is good news and bad news. The good news is its a tremendous turnout. The bad news is we didn’t anticipate it.”

Pawleys Island 2 is the county’s largest precinct with over 3,000 voters. The polling place moved to the recreation center this year from All Saints Church. Turnout was just over 23 percent, below the county average of just over 28 percent.

Pawleys Island 1 had almost the same number of voters show up (952), but the wait was almost twice as long. And although there were 101 voters more than the 2012 presidential primary, the percentage of voters who turned out in the precinct was actually down this year.

The highest turnout in the county was 39.2 percent at Murrells Inlet 1, which votes at the fire station on Business 17. “They aren’t anything like this,” Altman said as he pitched in at the Waccamaw Library.

As they waited in line, many voters raised the question of what the polls will be like in November’s general election. “November will be crazy,” Mahan said. But she added, “by then we will have everything adjusted to the proper number of workers.”

There will be lines, particularly at peak times: opening, lunch time and before closing. For those frustrated by the wait to vote, the frustration was perhaps worse for those who waited and couldn’t vote because they were in the wrong precinct. “There were at least 20 people I had to turn away,” Mahan said, referring to her time at Pawleys Island 1.

Voters should check their registration data to make sure it is current and check their polling place at scvotes.org, Mahan said.

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