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South Carolina should buy new voting machines now

Protect the Vote

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State legislators should be demanding, in the loudest possible voices, that our state acquire new voting machines now to assure citizens their votes count. Doing otherwise would give a silent nod to a state and national political culture marked by unacceptable levels of spineless do-nothingnness.

A call for new machines is not to suggest South Carolina's 13,000 touchscreen machines don't work. They do. They're safe, as I've written in the past. But they're old and past their lifespan. Can you imagine, as one security expert wondered, using a phone or a computer made in 2003? That's when our current machines went into service. As a practical matter in these times, you'd probably feel better about voting on machines that aren't that old with out-of-date electronic guts.

So, kudos to S.C. House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White (R-Anderson) for putting the purchase of new machines on the front burner as state lawmakers start to talk about how to spend a $177 million budget surplus. Getting new voting machines run by better software and, most importantly, a paper trail that can be audited makes common sense and is smart. More than likely, the feds are going to require us to have new machines anyway before the 2020 primary season.

If state legislators can't get their act together on getting new voting machines, voters should channel their outrage at anyone up for re-election in November when we'll still be using those old touchscreen voting machines without any real accountability.

State election officials go to great lengths to emphasize that the current system is safe and secure. It's just that there should be something better to provide more accountability. South Carolina is one of five states that currently rely on machines without paper back-ups for accountability.

"Our system has reached the end of its life," said Marci Andino, executive director of the S.C. Election Commission. "That means it is old. The life expectancy of the system is about 12 years."

It will cost in excess of $50 million for new machines, she said. Currently, there's about $15 million already budgeted to pay for new voting machines. But the state needs $35 million to $40 million more to purchase an updated system. Which is where the state surplus comes in.

Andino said the commission is being proactive now — meeting with vendors, working on a bid proposal and more — to be able to pull the trigger as soon as money is available. Nevertheless, there will likely be a year-long procurement, training and deployment process to get the machines ready to use.

"We are anticipating that Congress may tell us for 2020 that we may not use a system where we can't do a post-election audit," Andino said.

Meanwhile in Washington, lawmakers are struggling over ways to protect the voting process from cyberattacks. Voting machines generally aren't at risk, they agree, but they worry about cyberattacks focused on voter registration databases or even election-related websites, where there is far more opportunity to create chaos. Imagine if a hacker posted fake precinct locations on a county-level election website.

"Our assessment is that it would be exceedingly complex to change vote totals, and that in trying to attempt to do so [it's] likely that something would be noticed," Robert Kolasky, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Risk Management Center, said this week in Senate testimony, according to an ABC News report. "Voter registration files we've assessed as more of a vulnerability than the actual vote count process."

In Washington, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), has been working on legislation to improve election security and add tougher sanctions on Russia for cyberattacks, but both measures are getting stalled by the White House. News surfaced recently that Russian hackers were targeting conservative think tanks and U.S. Senate websites.

"To Republicans, if you think the Russians don't have you in mind, you are making a great mistake," Graham said during an election security hearing on Capitol Hill. "They are trying to undermine the democratic process."

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send to: feedback@statehousereport.com

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