From NBC's Domenico Montanaro and NBC/NJ's Carrie Dann
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Up to 1,500 votes may be cast on paper ballots in the Republican primary today in Horry County, S.C., which includes Myrtle Beach, because of voting machine problems due to human error on the part of county election commission staff, who failed to properly prepare the machines, state and county election officials said. After being tested, the machines should have been reset in preparation for election day, but that did not happen prior to this morning.
"There were about one or two machines in each of 80 to 90 percent of the precincts that were affected," said Lisa Bourcier, spokeswoman for the Horry County Election Commission. The majority of the 118 precincts have three machines in them, she said; a minority have as low as one or two machines or as high as four or five.
Horry County, with 127,000 voters in the northeastern corner of the state, bordering North Carolina and the coast, had been expected to turnout strongly for McCain. McCain's strength here is the coast, and reports of voting irregularities have stoked fears in the McCain campaign, which is locked in a tight battle with Huckabee in this all-important early state primary.
Underscoring that fear, the campaign sent out a release this afternoon that said, in part, that "voters are being turned away from the polls because electronic voting machines are not working and paper ballots are not available. Some voters say they are being instructed to return at a later time. We are disturbed by these reports and hope that this issue is resolved immediately."
Huckabee also has to contend with the potential of depressed voter turnout among his consituents, because of inclement weather in the northwestern portions of the state, areas dominated by socially conservative voters.
There are still four precincts in Horry where machines are not yet functional which "we are working on now," Bourcier said, adding that they have "brought on extra people to help."
"One thing to be thankful for is it's Saturday," she said. "There was no mad rush before work" like there would have been had there been a traditional Tuesday election here.
Voters are backing up at some locations, Bourcier said. "We will open up the courthouse next door," she said.
The Columbia State reported that napkins and paper towels were being used to record votes. The protocol is to use pre-printed paper ballots, State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said. But if those aren't available when voters are there, "In the meantime, they should use whatever means necessary to record the voters ballot," Whitmire added. Each precinct is equipped with a ballot lockbox, so the vote would be written down and dropped in the box and later counted.
Horry County Republican Party Chairman Robert Rabon says a handful of paper ballots are routinely distributed to polling locations in advance in case of emergency, but that some precincts began to run out of their stock once the problem was discovered. County police immediately began running extra paper ballots out to those locations.
He says, anecdotally, that when he went to one polling location to drop off extra paper ballots, two people were exiting who had been turned away and told to return later. He gave those two individuals paper ballots, and they were able to cast their votes, bringing the total number of people unable to vote at that location down to three. The implication here is that the actual number of people unable to vote because of this problem is likely small.
Rabon added that the problem of broken machines was "widespread" but that the paper ballot shortage was quickly resolved. Five crews of technicians were dispatched to polling locations to fix the programming. By mid-afternoon, he said, all precincts had "either got all the ballots they need or the machines were running."