A mistake during Tuesday's statewide primaries caused the vote count in a tight S.C. Statehouse race to flip-flop, which had some questioning the accuracy of results election officials report shortly after polls close.
At one point Tuesday night, it looked like Phil Hartman had a slight lead — about 50 votes — over incumbent S.C. Rep. Jeff Bradley in the Republican race for the District 123 seat representing Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands.
Really, it was Hartman who was trailing.
In one place in the county's electronic election database — which holds candidate information and voting statistics — someone had entered his name where Bradley's should have been, and vice versa.
Hartman would wake up in the morning having unofficially lost the race — the outcome that ultimately, according to officials, is correct.
"The candidates' names were inverted," Marie Smalls, director of the Beaufort County Board of Voter Registration and Elections, said Wednesday morning. "They should have been in alphabetical order. That's why the votes were flipped. Once they were discovered, they were adjusted, and the results were reported correctly."
Each precinct tallies its own count and posts printouts of results at their respective polling stations after voting closes. They also report the results to the county, which reports them to the state. The printouts posted Tuesday night at Hilton Head precincts had the correct figures, but those initially displayed on the S.C. Election Commission's website were wrong.
Smalls called the mistake a "data-entry error" and stressed that all returns are unofficial until they're validated by the board, a process that continued Thursday. She said no other errors were reported.
Still, the situation illustrates how one small mistake can impact the voting process and, potentially, affect a race.
The snafu caused some to worry about the message sent to the public, who should be able to trust that their votes count.
Hilton Head's Heather Rath, who voted in the primary — and who sent The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette pictures of posted precinct printouts that differed from results on the commission's website — was troubled by the inaccuracy.
"There are two situations here. First, the South Carolina Election Commission uses these early returns to release to the media, and the media in turn makes predictions off them," she said, worrying that such errors could impact future elections by eroding the public's trust in the democratic process.
"Second, if we want to encourage people, our citizens, to run for offices like town council or county council or school board, how are they going to be aware of, or equipped with, information to ensure this doesn't happen to them?"
When asked if she was worried about the effect the mistake could have on the public, Smalls said it was important to remember vote counts were unofficial and were still being validated — and that the validation process is designed to catch and correct such mistakes.
At Thursday's post-primary canvassing meeting, where the board meets to certify election results, she said it was the first time a mistake of this type had occurred.
Vernon Kemp, the board's election information systems specialist, said he and county staffers actually had discovered the problem before the primary and thought they'd fixed it.
According to Kemp, the electronic election database consists of five modules, the last of which intakes voting data from each precinct and transmits it to the state commission. While the names were ordered correctly in the first three modules, they were still inverted in the fourth, which in turn corrupted the fifth.
When asked how the board discovered the mistake on primary night, Smalls said a man from Hilton Head had called.
She said the validation process would have discovered the error even without his tip.
During the canvassing meeting, board member Bruce Massey said he'd personally hand-checked each precinct's results Wednesday to ensure the District 123 race numbers were correct.
Reporters at The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette began checking counts in other races after receiving Rath's photos and found no additional discrepancies.
The commission's website was updated with correct figures for the District 123 race around midnight Tuesday.
The accurate official tally, after Thursday's canvassing meeting, is: Bradley's 2,305 votes (51 percent) to Hartman's 2,201 votes (49 percent).
Hartman, who attended the canvassing meeting, said afterward that he would not challenge the results and that, despite "a couple of human errors and a couple of tech snafus, I think the election (board) has come to the right decision here."
"Rep. Bradley beat me by about 100 votes," he said.
Hartman added that he'd met with Smalls and said she was "generous" to explain the error to him in detail.
He later conceded the race on his Facebook page, saying: "The Election process in Beaufort County is in good hands and the residents should be assured that their vote was counted properly. ... Congratulations to Jeff Bradley!"
Bradley, who was also at the meeting, thanked the board for its attention to the matter.
On Wednesday afternoon, Bradley posted on his Facebook page, thanking his supporters "for making me the Republican nominee for the November general election!"
Bradley will face Democrat Mario Martinez in November.