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State orders hand count audit of Columbia mayor, city council election results due to poll problem

Some voters had to use paper ballots due to an error with some machines.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina Election Commission says there will be hand count audit of the Columbia runoff races, after there were some problems reported at the polls Tuesday.

The elections were to determine winners for two seats: the mayoral runoff and the at-large council seat runoff

Howard Knapp, the interim executive director of the commission, said he ordered the recount after hearing what happened at some precincts. 

"While the hand count must be completed by Richland County, SEC staff will be present to observe both the tabulation of results and hand count audit process," the commission said in a statement.

News19 received calls and emails from concerned voters about their experiences, including at precincts on Devine Street in Columbia, Dreher High School, and Hand Middle School. Some claimed machines weren't working when polls opened or that they were told to come back later.

"We checked in, got our ballot, we went to put our ballots in, and the machine rejected them," One voter said. "We tried all the machines. My husband and I, and another gentleman who was there tried all the machines that they had."

RELATED: Columbia's runoff elections: What you need to know

News19 spoke to poll workers at Hand Middle, Dreher High, and Sims Park, and they said there was an issue when polls open with the machines not scanning the ballots before people voted. Voters were given the option of using paper ballots that were then sealed. 

"There was an issue where the ballots—normally, we had been putting them through a printer, to put the election information at the top," said Barbara Jones, Poll Manager for Ward 12. "But this election was set up, not to do that."

RELATED: Columbia Mayoral candidates debate ahead of next week's decisive election

The poll workers say the problems were resolved with 15 to 20 minutes and only affected a handful of people at each location. They said that those paper ballots would be counted. 

RELATED: Meet the Candidates: At-Large Columbia City Council

At the fire station on Devine Street, there was a problem that ultimately was determined to be the printer. Once the problem was resolved, voting continued. 

South Carolina State Election Commission (SEC) Spokesman Chris Whitmire said the problem was made by Election Systems & Software, who prepared the file for electronic poll books used in the elections. Those poll books are used to make sure voters get the correct ballot. The problem meant that when voters went to the machine to make their selections for candidate, no ballot displayed. 

Whitmire said the vendor has apologized for the error, but he added that the problem should also have been caught by the Richland County Elections Office when they did their review on Monday, the day before the election. Whitmire said the SEC will be following up with the company and the county to make sure this problem doesn't happen again. 

Whitmire said the problem should not have prevented any voters from voting. He said the fix is easy once poll workers catch it, which is what happened at most of the affected precincts. The workers just give a blank ballot card and the poll worker manually selects the correct ballot that the voter should use. He said paper ballots were another option and that those votes will be counted. 

The problems were at a small percentage of the over 70 precincts open on election day. 

News19 spoke with some voters who encountered the problem, who said there were given paper ballots. One said when she was told she would use a paper ballot, she decided to come back later, and when she did, she said the problem was resolved. 

Richland County Elections Director Alexandria Stephens said they had workers out to fix the problems as soon as they were detected. 

"If anyone has an issue they can give us a call we're on top of it, just as we were this morning when the calls started coming in," she said. "We got on the phone, my deputy and I got out we sent our polling location technicians out to make sure everything was up and running smoothly."

Stephens said no voters were turned away at the polls, and the Voter Registration and Elections office's goal is to ensure everyone gets the chance to vote, one way or another.