Beaufort Co. at the polls: A rainy morning, light turnout, new voting machines

Beaufort County voters encountered few problems in the voting booths Tuesday, casting paper ballots from new electronic machines in elections for Bluffton, Port Royal and Yemassee town councils, Bluffton and Port Royal mayors, as well as a $345 million school bond referendum.

Polls were open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and the heavy rain Tuesday morning didn’t seem to deter voters. As expected in an off-year election with few issues on the ballot, turnout of the county’s 128,503 registered voters was quite light, although some polling locations reported better than expected turnout.

At the Bluffton Library Tuesday morning, a trickle of voters moved quickly through the routine. Everything appeared to run smoothly.

“It was really easy,” said Joe Renteria of Bluffton, a father of three who said he was in and out in 5 minutes. “I didn’t wait.”

Few issues were reported Tuesday morning with the new electronic voting machines, which require voters to mark their selections and then submit a paper slip containing their choices into a separate counting machine.

Marie Smalls, director of Beaufort County Board of Voter Registration and Elections, said there were some issues early in the day with the new equipment, but technicians were dispatched to help, and emergency ballots were on hand.

“This is our first time on the equipment, and whatever happens today will be a learning lesson for 2020,” she said.

Issues with voting

At St. Gregory the Great, a new polling place for precincts 4A, 5A and 5B, a poll worker reported hiccups in the morning because the building was not open in time to allow voting machines to be set up before polls opened at 7 a.m..

Workers called the first big push of voters “chaotic.”

Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

In Yemassee, a town that straddles Beaufort and Hampton counties, the ballot at the Hampton County polling location did not have the Beaufort County school referendum. Yemassee voters living in Beaufort County had to travel to the Sheldon Precinct #2 polling location in the Booker T. Washington Center.

In Bluffton, staff at the Bluffton Recreation Center on Ulmer Road said they’d turned away more people for coming to the wrong polling place than they’d had successful voters.

The gymnasium, which is next to the Beaufort County Board of Elections annex where many people have voted early in the past, hosted only one precinct in this election: Bluffton 3.

Kathy Griebel, who has worked elections for 11 years, said voters came to the recreation center from as far as Sun City Hilton Head and had to be turned away.

She reminded people to verify their precinct before making the trip to a polling place.

James Atkins, who voted at the Bluffton library, said his experience was quick, but he worried about the dual machine set-up during busier times on Election Day.

“How effective will it be with a greater number of people coming to vote?” he asked. “They’ll have to stand in line for a second machine.”

Poll worker Melinda Mitchell at the Oscar Frazier Park Community Center said she’d thought of that, too, but her polling place will set up two machines for ballot feeds in the February presidential primary.

“The elections now will definitely have us more prepared for the primary,” she said.

Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

Election Day weather

The heavy rain Tuesday morning didn’t appear to have a big impact on voters, according to poll workers.

The poll technician at St. Gregory, who has worked 12 elections in Beaufort County, said he didn’t expect the weather to hurt turnout.

Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

Voter turnout

An off year for national elections, this Election Day was expected to have low turnout. In 2017, when Bluffton voters chose council members, only 8 percent of registered voters cast ballots. This year, with only local races on the ballot, the voters who showed up were particularly interested in schools, or paid close attention to town politics.

Smalls, the elections supervisor, said turnout was steady Tuesday in southern Beaufort County.

In Port Royal, candidates and supporters congregated most of the day on Paris Avenue near Port Royal Town Hall to greet passing cars and residents walking to the polls. The municipal building is where voters in two of the town’s most popular precincts cast their ballots.

A total of 573 people had voted at the location as of about 5:30 p.m., and turnout was steady throughout the day with no issues, a precinct manager said. Turnout was more than 30 percent in Port Royal 1 and 19 percent in Port Royal 2, she said.

At Bluffton’s St. Gregory the Great, 115 voters had cast ballots by mid-morning, and by 9:45 a.m., the library had recorded around 200 votes, including absentee ballots. Seasoned poll workers at the library said the surges in voters usually happen around lunchtime and 5 p.m., when many voters arrive after work.

By 10 a.m., the community center at Oscar Frazier Park had reported 92 total voters, while the Bluffton Recreation Center on Ulmer Road had just 50.

Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

Buckwalter Recreation Center, on the other hand, reported much higher numbers. Four precincts cast their votes at the center, which saw 292 voters by 10:15 a.m.

Election officials there said turnout was “better than expected.”

Many polling workers and voters expressed relief that the first go-around with the new voting machines was not in a national election year.

The elections

In the Bluffton municipal election, three candidates ran for two open seats on town council. Newcomer Bridgette Frazier challenged incumbents Harry Lutz and Dan Wood, while Lisa Sulka was elected to her fourth term as mayor.

For the first time since 1995, Port Royal residents have a new mayor. With longtime mayor Sam Murray not running for re-election, Port Royal voters decided between Town Council member Mary Beth Gray-Heyward and resident Joe DeVito for the seat. Voters also chose from three candidates for two open town council seats: incumbents Jerry Ashmore and Robert Landrum and attorney Kevin Phillips.

In Yemassee, newcomers Robert Bobby Moore Jr. and Darrell A. Russell challenged incumbents Peggy Bing-O’Banner and Afred Washington.

For the third time in four years, Beaufort County School District asked voters for a multimillion-dollar commitment in a school bond referendum. The $345 million bond issue would pay for construction, technology and safety projects across the district’s 30 schools.

The Beaufort County Board of Elections will meet Thursday morning to certify the results.

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.
A reporter for The Island Packet covering local government and development, Kacen Bayless is a native of St. Louis, Missouri. In the past, he’s worked for St. Louis Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and the Columbia Business Times. He graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism degree with an emphasis in Investigative Reporting from the University of Missouri in 2019.