NEWS: Protecting the vote in South Carolina

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State says machines will work in November; Critics are wary

By Bill Davis, senior editor  |  Despite growing national and state alarm about the integrity of the voting process, the S.C. State Election Commission insists its aging voting system is safe and works so well the state can put off buying new voting machines for a few years.

This is the same state agency that in 2015 asked the state for nearly $42 million to replace thousands of voting machines purchased for $34 million in 2004 with federal money.

This is also the same agency that in the wake of a 2016 joint legislative committee report did a reversal to look for ways to extend the current machines life-cycle for up to six years.

When the machines were originally purchased the agency estimated the 2016 elections would be the last for the current machines.

Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire this week compared the current voting machines to an old pair of Levi’s, saying “they aren’t pretty, but they work.”

National interest over voting machine security

Concern nationally has been piqued recently over voting safety after reports this week from Illinois and Arizona that their voter registration system had been hacked.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump also has generated headlines, telling his millions of supporters that if he loses, it will prove that the election was “rigged.” Trump won all but two counties in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary earlier this year — using the very machines that will be used in November.

But there’s some history of problems with South Carolina’s electronic machines:

  • In 2012, snafus with the voting system in Richland County caused a series of recounts and stirred up serious concerns regarding the machines.
  • In 2011, the state chapter of the League of Women’s Voters issued a report that criticized the machines for not having readily available replacement parts, that they were too complicated for many poll managers to operate, and that they provided no “paper trail” for recounts.

A paper backup is needed, lawmaker says

It’s a lack of a paper trail, primarily, that pushed retiring state Rep. Walt McLeod (D-Little Mountain) to call for joint legislative resolutions for the past three sessions to replace the machines.



McLeod’s call for new machines came amid debate over a voter I.D. bill that was supposed to protect the sanctity of elections. That bill went into effect this year, and requires South Carolina voters to show some form of approved of photo identification before being allowed to vote.

An appropriations bill in 2015, using language from McLeod’s initially unsuccessful resolution, created a joint legislative voting systems research committee.  That committee held two hearings and issued a report that said the state should wait a year or two before replacing the system to give emerging technologies the chance to provide an even better system.

One of the biggest critics of state government, Brett Bursey, agreed.

Bursey, who leads the S.C. Progressive Network, said new “open source” computer technology emerging from Silicon Valley could provide safer, cheaper and more reliable voting machines, while at the same time creating jobs.

Why not have our own platform?

For years, Bursey has been an advocate of the state creating and maintaining its own voting machine platform, with maintenance being provided by tech school graduates. Currently, the state’s voting machine’s computer code is written and maintained by a private company.

Bursey said relying on an outside company had been in keeping with the state’s practice of bringing in outside vendors from the “free market” to provide expertise in a complicate field, like information technology.

Steve Abrams, a Mount Pleasant attorney who also works as a forensic computer investigator, wants to see some sort of paradigm shift in the technology that runs the state’s voting machines.

Abrams, who has worked for Democratic and Republican political candidates in the past, said he had attended national seminars where voting machines from across the market were shown to be vulnerable to cyber-attacks from small, handheld computers.

He said he saw repeatedly how technology could “flip” an electronic voting machine and redirect all the votes to another candidate.  Even electronic machines run by proprietary software that have with paper printouts have problems, Abrams said, because hacked machines also cause paper records that reflect the hack..

Fraud happens rarely, commission says, but limited in scope

While Election Commission spokesman Whitmire admitted that “election fraud happens” rarely, he added that individual attacks on a single voting machine like the one Abrams detailed, would have a “limited range,” and be more effective on smaller, municipal elections.

Whitmore also stressed that any attempt to compromise a voting machine would likely be spotted by vigilant poll workers and managers.

Like Abrams, Whitmire said that there is no “perfect” election, but that South Carolina has implemented “the most comprehensive voting audit system in the country.”

Additionally, Whitmire said his agency is cooperating with a large network of voting professionals from across the country, from federal agencies to local commissions, to ensure that the cyber security of the current system is up-to-date and solid.

Whitmire said the agency takes very seriously its twofold job: to make sure that the votes get counted right, and that it maintains the public trust in the outcome. “Because if you have one and not the other, what good is it?”


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