A Beaufort woman says she is worried about the potential for voter fraud in Beaufort County after she was nearly allowed to vote twice in the June primary.
However, elections officials argue that was a one-time clerical error, not a systemic loophole, and that there will be no repeats of the mistake in the Nov. 4 general election.
"Unfortunately what happened happened, but we will tighten up the system," said Marie Smalls, director of the Beaufort County Board of Elections & Registration. "We have changed a lot of processes and procedures this year, and we'll continue to refine it before November."
Donna Starkey of Beaufort said she decided to test the local election office's absentee-voting system during the June 10 primary election. Starkey said both she and her husband, Don Starkey, who volunteered as a poll clerk in the primary, cast their absentee ballots the morning of June 9 at the elections office on John Galt Road in Beaufort.
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Suspicious that her and her husband's votes had not been properly recorded, Starkey visited her normal precinct at Burton 2C during regular poll hours the next day and attempted to vote, she said.
"It just was a feeling that I had," she said last week. "I don't think the voting thing is being administered correctly."
Starkey has voted absentee before because she's volunteered several times as a poll worker. This year she voted absentee but decided not to volunteer because of nagging health problems, she said.
After Starkey presented her driver's license and confirmed her address with the poll clerks, she was told she would be allowed to vote. But when she explained her test, the poll workers called Smalls and confirmed Starkey had already voted and should not be eligible.
Smalls called the irregularity a "clerical error." The poll clerk at Burton 2C did not receive the updated list of those who had cast absentee votes Monday in that precinct because an elections office employee typed her email address incorrectly that night, Smalls said.
The elections office records each absentee voter who casts a ballot on a master list that is programmed onto the laptop computers that poll clerks use to check in voters on Election Day. The system is intended to ensure people don't vote twice. However, poll clerks pick up those laptops on the day before Tuesday elections, while absentee voting is still open.
When absentee voting closed at 5 p.m. Monday, elections officials divided the names of those who voted absentee Monday by their normal precinct and emailed those names to poll clerks at those precincts, so they could manually update the computers before polls opened Tuesday.
The email system is a new procedure this year, designed to eliminate the need for the election office's nine commissioners to hand-deliver the updated lists to the county's 92 precincts on the morning of the election, Smalls said. With the exception of Burton 2C, the new system worked well, she added.
"When it was emailed to the clerk, her email was incorrect," Smalls said. "When it was brought to her attention and my attention, we sent the list to her; it was kind of late in the afternoon. But to my knowledge, that was the only precinct that did not get their list on time."
Although it appeared to be a mistake in this instance, Starkey worries someone or a group of people bent on skewing an election could exploit the weakness to commit voter fraud.
After her test, Starkey drove to pick up her husband at the PR1 precinct in Port Royal where he was volunteering, she said. Not long before the poll closed at 7 p.m., election commissioner Beverly Dore visited the poll and told Don Starkey and another volunteer, Billy Dilsaver, the poll workers had not properly recorded one Monday absentee voter, Starkey and Dilsaver said.
In that instance, that record had not been communicated properly to Dilsaver, who does not have an email address, Smalls said. It was supposed to have been emailed to Don Starkey, but that didn't happen either, she added.
Two similar late additions to the list of absentee voters were made at the PR1 precinct during the June 24 primary runoff, Don Starkey and Dilsaver said. But none of the three absentee voters who were recorded late on the election days actually voted twice, they added.
"This is a big deal. The commissioners have a big responsibility, and (the updated list) is part of it," Dilsaver said. "If you don't have it there when they open up the poll at 7 a.m., you could have 50 of those people come in between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., and not be able to do anything about it."
Smalls said both cases will help elections officials adjust poll volunteer training and establish a clearer communication for providing the final absentee voters to each precinct.
"Any time humans are involved, there can be mistakes, but we're going to keep tightening it up to make sure this won't happen again," Smalls said.
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.